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Friday, December 13, 2013

Santa Herc, Making His List and Checking it Twice!

I believe I did promise you some santa-hat-wearing-hero antics, didn't I?

Happy Holidays!
From me and mine (and Santa Herc, too), to yours and you!

I'll be back to blogging come February, by which time I hope to have finished writing Hippodamia's story. (So much heartbreak, so little time, and the writer-cave will not be denied.)

original image is my own
Santa Edit Credit goes to author-friend Zak Tringali!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


As I mentioned last week, I participate in NaNoWriMo every year -- and that means blogging takes a backseat in November! After November, we have the Christmas Holiday Lead-Up of Doom, complete with family invasion, and since I'd only really be able to come back for two weeks max, I'm going to be taking off both November and December from the blog!

That said, I promise a little bit of Santa Herc action when the time draws nearer, so I suppose you have at least that much to look forward to before the year's end.

Expect me back around the second week of January, with more Age of Heroes Excellence, and in the meantime, the best of luck to everyone participating in National Novel Writing Month! May you meet and exceed your 50,000 words in these coming 30 days!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

NaNoWriMo is coming!

I take part in National Novel Writing Month every year (since 2002!) and one thing I've learned is that when writing historical fiction -- definitely do your research and readings in October, before the amazing race to 50K begins. But most importantly, just write every day, and try to have fun! In that vein, here are some resources that might be worth bookmarking for the big event:

But if you find yourself stuck for a (non-historical-fiction) story, or maybe a plot twist, definitely check out this idea generator:

And if you're hoping for some inspiration on the mythology side of things, there's this handy-dandy illustration of ALL of Zeus' affairs and the resulting offspring, organized by author (and the period in which the author was writing!) which ought to give you PLENTY of fodder for conflicts and strained relationships!

Still not enough? Or not sure why Zeus and his various conquests did what they did? Here's 123 ideas for character flaws -- I am SURE you'll find at least ONE which explains his (mis)behavior... beyond the "I'm King of the Gods" excuse, of course.

Maybe your characters need some downtime -- or maybe you do, because the constantly torturing them business is wearing you thin -- don't forget, 5000 years ago, people totally played board games. I'm betting you can find some words if you have to make up the rules.

If all else fails, give IN THE TIME OF GODS by Dar Williams a listen -- an entire album all about the Olympians! Including a really interesting one about Hephaestus (it might be my favorite!)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jason and the Argonauts

I love Classical mythology. But there is no question that it is a mess of contradictions sometimes. Parallel stories growing up from different regions, only combined later, and never reconciled results in a number of fascinating Gordian Knots of confusion and crossed-paths. Sometimes there's enough of a narrative that you can fudge it without too much of a problem -- like the relationship between Theseus and Heracles, and their shared adventures -- but sometimes, there really is just no way to make it all work together coherently.

For example, Jason and those pesky Argonauts. Let me count the ways in which I find them impossible, for me, as a writer of historical fiction:

1) No one agrees about who all took part in this famous Voyage of Heroes.
          This muddling is no fault of Jason's or his crew, but rather the city-states who each wanted to have their hero take part and so, over time and with each addition, completely obscured any truth that might have ever existed. And here's the thing that makes this so frustrating: I can totally see Castor and Pollux elbowing Joe Hero who's trying to impress some king while bargaining for a wife, winking and smiling and saying "Oh yeah, Joe? He was with us on the Argo! He's the real deal!" I imagine, with that many people taking part, it would have been easy to fudge your way onto the list. Not unlike claiming you're some by-blow of Zeus or Ares or Apollo or Poseidon, because everyone knows the gods get around, right? BUT...

2) Trying to fit the voyage of the Argonauts into an historical and linear narrative with OTHER heroic quests and adventures is completely impossible.
          If you do figure out who went, fitting it in between Heracles' 12 labors etc, Theseus' Labors (and don't forget "Not Without Theseus" was actually a SAYING because he was involved in everything, apparently), Helen's abductions and the Trojan War, and the stories of the Dioscuri (Helen's brothers) is kind of ridiculous. It all takes place AT THE SAME TIME. Frankly, I'm inclined to believe that none of the major players went with Jason at all, because there is just no way to put it all together and have everyone be where they're supposed to be later. No. Way.
          Now, if the only book you're writing is Jason's, this isn't an issue, but guys, I love Theseus, Helen, Heracles, and Pirithous, and if I'm going to write me some historical fiction, for my own sanity, I'd like it all to fit in the same world. Jason and the Argonauts would shred my already extremely delicate balancing act of a timeline into pieces that would never, ever fit together again.

3) Balancing UMPTEEN Heroes all in one cast of characters while giving them all distinct personalities and a fair shake while not IMPOSSIBLE, definitely poses challenges.
          There sure would be plenty of conflict within the party. No lack of ego and hubris as they all struggle to work as a team when each one is used to taking the lead and doing their own thing. I mean, if Jason is in charge, that makes everyone else involved his SIDEKICK, and I'm just not sure how to tackle Heracles or Theseus as a sidekick to anyone -- they're both forces to be reckoned with, to say the least. Then of course there is the potential of bad blood between heroes who had engaged in altercations pre-voyage, all confined to a ship for how long?
         This is an ensemble cast of EPIC proportions -- and I do mean Epic in the most definitive sense -- and frankly, it gives me a headache just THINKING about it. Ensembles are hard to pull off, and while one day I might be ready to tackle that mess (in a standalone totally its own continuity adventure) I just can't imagine how I could do it justice at this juncture. Remember that there were between 40 and 60 men (and women) named as Argonauts. That is a LOT of folks to work into a narrative, even after you pair it down to the essentials. And the story of Jason and the Argonauts? That is definitely a retelling that will require some cutting of characters and creative license with the source materials to make it work, no question.

So when the day comes that my books are on shelves -- there is one hero you can safely bet won't be in the mix.

Sorry, Jason, it isn't you, really, it's me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Prometheus and People! (Plus Punishments)

This is a super fantastic summary of the trials and tribulations of mankind at the beginning of their existence, as well as their creation! Proving once again that Classical Mythology is, itself, fantastic in every way, as well.

The whole creation of mankind thing gets to be something of a slippery slope, and the who did what isn't always the same in ANY myth, but knowing one of these stories is better than knowing none, not to mention that this looks like the start of a great vlog series on Classical Myth!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hair Dye in Ancient Times

In one of my novels, one of my characters dyes her hair -- this is easy enough to imagine in the modern day, of course. We all know where to find hair dye today, and the process of applying it is pretty simple. In the ancient world, and going even further back to the Bronze Age, it requires a bit more research. And by a bit, I mean that I probably lost a whole day to the process.

For your benefit and mine, here's what I found!

Classical Antiquity:
The process that was used during antiquity to dye hair is mind-blowingly awesome in its simultaneous simplicity and complexity. You see, during antiquity, Greeks and Romans and Egyptians dyed their hair using nano-technology without even knowing it! Of course the downside is that it required lead oxide, which probably didn't do much for their health.

For my book, the problem was, how the heck would my character get her hands on lead oxide or lime? And that kind of dye process is absolutely permanent--which is, of course, what my character was going for, but not at all helpful to ME for later events, and Homeric Greece was certainly not Antiquity. I can believe that these kinds of techniques were known in Egypt, however, and in the east. Troy by all accounts seems to be very rich in these kinds of things-- a center for trade. But my character, working under the radar, wouldn't really have access to what was needed for this technique, even by trial and error.

Another common dye, Henna, would most likely have been beyond her reach because it required trade to acquire from the east, but it was certainly available if someone wanted to go red. And it might have even been available (by trade) even earlier, which leads us to...

There are a variety of pigments that were available to people in Mycenaean times. Umber and Ochre for browns, reds and yellows, Bone and Carbon blacks, for, well, black for certain. But could any of these pigments be made into dyes? It would certainly require some kind of solvent (and I'm totally wishing I had blond hair of my own that I could trim and try mixing dyes in my kitchen sink about now.) The only information I was able to find on making ochre based dyes involved soy milk as the bonding agent. Earliest records of soy milk do not stretch back to Mycenaean times, even in China. Cow's milk has a similar amount of protein to soy milk, but I'm not sure it has the same enzymes to allow the bonding-- or it might require the addition of an acid to activate them (like Vinegar or wine, I'd imagine, though I have no idea how the chemistry would all work out), or maybe egg would do. Either way, for hair dye, these pigments probably aren't an optimal choice.

So what is?

Walnuts, actually. Boiling the fruit of the walnut tree apparently makes a dye which will darken as it oxidizes. While information on the cultivation of walnuts CERTAINLY dates back to Classical times, the information for the bronze age is a lot sketchier. Walnuts have been found in Europe well before the Bronze Age, though there are no signs that it was necessarily cultivated before the the classical period (pdf).

However, Walnuts do play a role in Greek Myth (relating to Dionysus), and working in a Homeric setting, or under the guise of the random naturally occurring walnut tree, or perhaps a walnut tree growing into existence by divine will, you can certainly get away with their use. They would have been known, even if they weren't a staple, and one would not necessarily have had to depend on trade in order to find a tree in the woods. Just breaking open the green outer shell would reveal the aspect of the dye -- in fact I witnessed this first hand just the other day, along with the stained fingers which resulted -- and a smart character could plausibly recognize its utility without requiring much of anything else.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

More on Kinship, Stupid Heroes, and other Links of Win

I'm swinging into Autumn by playing catch up, so today we have a round-up of related links and such, for my reference and yours!

FIRST some insight from the academic perspective on the Kinship of Greek Heroes, from twitter. With all my own reading and education, I still would kill to go back to school and take all the Classics courses all over again, I'm not going to lie.

Second, another excellent example of things I wish I'd been able to do in my classics program -- Archaeological Researches Go Into Battle to Test Bronze Age Weapons.

Related: You would not believe how much time I spent trying to research what would happen if rubbing alcohol was applied to a bronze dagger. I never did get a definitive answer, even after I spoke to a metallurgist, a physicist, and a metalsmith. Their advice was just to get some bronze and try it for myself.

Also Related: You would not believe how hard it is to find true bronze for craft/testing purposes. Most of what's sold with a bronze appearance is brass instead, so the jury is still out, and when/if I get my hands on some proper bronze, I'll let you know how it goes.

Third: Vicky Alvear Shecter has this fantastic blog post on Stupid Heroes which you should all go read immediately.  Including such classics as Heracles trying to shoot the sun out of the sky.

And finally, "If it looks like a drama, and is structured like a drama, then it is a drama." A website about the Gospels as Dramas, and how different gospels may have been written to evoke the different heroic journeys of a couple of important cultural heroes. Definitely worth an exploration for purposes of comparative mythology.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Kinship and Greek Heroes

I should be forbidden from camera-ing
so many crooked shots of doom.
(Farnese Hercules at The National Gallery)
One of the things I find really fascinating in Classical Mythology is the familial bonds between heroes and how little emphasis is placed upon them. It's so strange to think of these other heroes as siblings and cousins to one another. So often we don't have any understanding of those bonds in the stories that surround them. Pirithous and Theseus are an exception, in some respects, since we know from more than one source that they were like brothers -- but their relationship doesn't have anything to do with their shared lineage or the idea that they're cousins. They bond over their perceptions of one another as honorable and equals in strength and cunning and bravery.

We never hear about Heracles calling up his half-brothers or sisters, or really forming relationships with his blood-relatives on his divine side. Sure, he might have buddied up with Theseus to hit on the Amazons, and there's that whole Jason and the Argonauts thing, about which we will not speak, but even when Euripides showcases the friendship between Theseus and Heracles, there isn't any mention of their familial bond. They were friends and heroes in arms, but not explicitly spoken of as cousins, either.

Of course some of the heroes are from different generations, and not at all contemporaries -- like Pirithous and Perseus, for example, or Heracles and Perseus* -- so in that case, it's a lot less strange that there's no mention of any relationship they might have shared. But Pirithous and Heracles were contemporaries AND brothers, and I'm not sure I know a single myth in which they cross paths at all. So as I read, and write, I wonder: what might Pirithous have thought of his famous brothers, living and dead? Did he consider them kin at all? And if not, why not?

*Perseus is actually an ancestor of Heracles as well as his brother. Alcmene, Heracles' mother was Perseus' granddaughter. So in this case, one would think there would be even more of an acknowledgment of that family connection. But. Not so much. Then again maybe being the great-grandfather and brother of Perseus crossed some incestual line of weirdness for the Greeks, so they just kind of tried to ignore it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Bromance of Theseus and Pirithous

One of my favorite myths is the the story of how Theseus and Pirithous meet for the first time. Somehow, the idea of the young King Theseus, making a name for himself as a hero and an upstanding individual -- a king of great wisdom and honor -- being tested by Pirithous the most piratey of rapscallions, just tickles me.

The story goes that Pirithous, having heard of Theseus' prowess in battle, wanted proof of his courage and strength, and so, as all good heroes do, he went out to rustle some of Theseus' cattle in order to test him. A time honored tradition among demigods, and second only to stealing women-folk! Plutarch tells the rest of the story in his essay on Theseus:

[...]when the news was brought that Theseus pursued him in arms, he did not fly, but turned back and went to meet him. But as soon as they had viewed one another, each so admired the gracefulness and beauty, and was seized with such respect for the courage of the other, that they forgot all thoughts of fighting; and Pirithous, first stretching out his hand to Theseus, bade him be judge in this case himself, and promised to submit willingly to any penalty he should impose.

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. From that day forth, Theseus and Pirithous were like brothers, allies in everything and according to Ovid's Heroides, inseparable to the point of neglecting their other relationships, including their own sons (but then too, Phaedre isn't the most reliable of narrators, either, and bespelled by the gods in her lust for Theseus' son, besides).

Perithoos Hippodameia BM VaseF272
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Which is Pirithous and which is Theseus
I couldn't tell you, honestly.
Of Pirithous alone, we have very little information. Most of what is preserved is only in relation to his adventures with Theseus, in which, to my prejudiced readings, he comes off as the instigator of some foolish adventures, inevitably resulting in trouble for both of them, the primary example being, as we have discussed on multiple occasions, the abduction of Helen, and the subsequent trip to Hades so that Pirithous might steal Persephone, because that is just the kind of overconfident, arrogant piece of work that Pirithous was. And we've also touched on the Centauromachy, and his wedding to Hippodamia, which was so rudely interrupted by lustful centaurs trying to molest, if not steal outright, his bride.

Personally, I think the bromance of Pirithous and Theseus belongs up there with Achilles and Patroclus, and it's a real shame they don't get more press in pop culture. That um, might account for their continued and repeated presence on my blog. If you were wondering.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Not all Demigods are Created Equal

Just because a person is a son or daughter of a god doesn't mean they're a hero. A lot of their Hero Status really depends on what they do with that divine ichor -- after all, Odysseus is only the great-grandson of Hermes, but he's 100% Hero in the Greekest sense of the word.

So let's talk about a couple of other examples. The guys who don't make the cut.

Tantalus, King of ... well, no one can quite agree where. So let's say--

Tantalus, the Wealthy King
A son of Zeus by Pluto, herself a woman of heavily-ichored blood, Tantalus had a very close relationship to the gods. Some say that he was even invited into Zeus' confidences, and entrusted with divine secrets, which he then betrayed. Others say, he invited the Olympians to his house, and wanting to test them, he killed and cooked one of his sons, serving him to Zeus and the other gods for dinner. The stories say that Zeus, realizing what he had done, restored his son to life (missing a bit of his shoulder, as one of the more hapless gods had not been so discerning in regard to the menu) and cast Tantalus into eternal punishment in Tartarus. He was made to stand in a pool of water from which he could never drink (the water receding every time he bent to take a sip), with the boughs of fruit trees hanging over his head from which he could never eat (the branches pulled away out of reach when he stretched out his arm to grasp the fruit). The story of Tantalus the un-hero was so famous and so well known that we get the word "Tantalize" from his name.

Minos, King of Crete
Pasiphae Minotauros Cdm Paris DeRidder1066 detailA son of Zeus by Europa, Minos is rarely categorized as a hero, and aside from the ever-present flaw of Hubris, he doesn't seem to have much in the way of Heroic characteristics. Like Tantalus before him, he takes advantage of his close ties and kinship with the gods, but doesn't show the proper amount of respect. When Minos asks the gods for a bull in order to take the crown, he's given the gift, but he doesn't follow through on his own promise to offer it back in sacrifice, and as a result, he's punished. And by "he" I mean, his pride more than anything, because it's his wife, Pasiphae who is struck with lust for the bull, and cuckolds him with the bovine -- likely Poseidon himself. As a result, she gives birth to the minotaur, a lasting reminder of Minos' error in judgment and a blight upon his house.

It seems to me that the message of these two stories is clear. Divine Ichor or not, know your place. This is something the real heroes don't seem to have so much trouble with -- they know the gods are above them, and they act accordingly. When they DO overstep themselves, war or punishment follows swiftly. But these guys? Minos and Tantalus? Their errors are so grievous that if they accomplished anything heroic, it's been overshadowed forever by their wrongs.

You might say they're the Cautionary Tales of the ancient world.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Pirithous, Theseus, and that Ill-advised Trip to the Underworld (II)

Theseus merely went after a demigod when he abducted Helen, and while I won't say he didn't suffer for his share of the unfortunate agreement he made with Pirithous, he certainly did not suffer for it to the same extent that Pirithous did. It's said, however, that Pirithous went after Persephone because Zeus SENT him, for the sole purpose of seeing him punished.
When Jove saw that they had such audacity as to expose themselves to danger [kidnapping Helen], he bade them in a dream both go and ask Pluto on Pirithous’ part for Proserpine in marriage (Hyginus, Fabulae, 79).
another shot of Ceres/Demeter
So it wasn't even the pact to marry daughters of Zeus that provoked the gods, so much as how they went about kidnapping Helen herself. This isn't, like with Paris, an example of violating the laws of hospitality, though. It's their nerve which offends Zeus, their needless risk-taking -- and that sounds a lot more like Hubris, to me. Or like a father whose given up on bailing out his sons when they insist on going out and causing their own trouble.

Regardless, I have to wonder: would Pirithous have thought to abduct Persephone if it hadn't been for Zeus's influence and irritation with the pair of them? Granted, there aren't a lot of other daughters of Zeus for him to claim who aren't goddesses (according to Theoi, he only has two: Helen and Herophile of Libya), but might he have been more inclined to go on some less hazardous adventure elsewhere to find one?

Now, Hyginus also says that Heracles pulls them both back out of the underworld, but Apollodorus says otherwise in The Libraries:
And being come near to the gates of Hades he found Theseus and Pirithous, him who wooed Persephone in wedlock and was therefore bound fast. And when they beheld Hercules, they stretched out their hands as if they should be raised from the dead by his might. And Theseus, indeed, he took by the hand and raised up, but when he would have brought up Pirithous, the earth quaked and he let go.

Pirithous being Pirithous, I'm not sure it would surprise me all that much if he got it into his own head that Persephone wanted him, and it would be a good idea to go steal her, for which he would then deserve the punishment of being trapped in Hades for eternity. But if he only went after Persephone because of Zeus? Well, that changes things. Why shouldn't Pirithous follow the direction of the King of the Gods, with all hope of success in his venture? With Zeus' blessing, how could he fail?

It isn't all that different from Paris' motivations in stealing Helen, much later. Not that his excursion worked out any better, really. But it certainly changes things, either way. In this instance, even if Pirithous might have had the gall to go after Persephone on his own, would Theseus have had the audacity to go with him? Would he have leant his support to such a venture, pact or not? Would they have turned around and come home, halfway there?

Theseus might have returned before Helen's brothers arrived to steal her back, preserved his throne and his kingship, and Pirithous might have not spent the rest of eternity in the chair of forgetfulness. Perhaps they both would have gone on to Troy, forming a trio of cronies with Nestor, and lived or died there instead.

How many sins did the gods first impose upon their heroes, just for the excuse of punishing them? And was Pirithous a victim of his own Hubris, or the gods' desire to remind him just WHO exactly was boss? But one thing I don't wonder about when I read these stories is this: the gods matter to the outcomes, and neither the characters nor the stories themselves are the same when you strip them out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pirithous, Theseus, and that Ill-advised Trip to the Underworld (I)

Ceres/Demeter searching for Persephone
The story goes that Pirithous and Theseus made a pact that they should both marry daughters of Zeus, because they were demigods and as such deserving of marriage to women of divine lineage. Leaving aside the fact that a daughter of Zeus would also be Pirithous' half-sister and the marriage slightly incestuous, a demigod deciding he deserves some kind of honor or another for himself is never really a good idea. Hubris is never, ever, ever a recipe for success for any demigod or mortal. The gods just do not put up with it.

BUT, I can certainly see the appeal a demigod daughter of Zeus might have had for Pirithous and Theseus, both of whom suffered from a certain amount of bad luck when it came to their wives. Pirithous's wife, Hippodamia was assaulted during their wedding feast; and Theseus' lost his Amazon Queen, Antiope, to the war with the amazons, and his second wife, Phaedra to the curse of the gods, after she fell in love with his son, Hippolytus, accused him of raping her (which resulted in *his* death) and then killed herself. I could see Theseus and Pirithous both feeling that they'd like a wife who was a little bit more hardy -- of stronger stock, so to speak.

Just making off with Helen wasn't really such a terrible thing for the times. Abducting women was a pretty normal activity for demigods, and provided they didn't break the laws of hospitality by doing so, didn't normally result in any extreme consequences. At the time of her abduction by Theseus, Helen was still unpromised, and we know that even stealing wives isn't unheard of or unsurprising, because later on, Helen was so desired, that her suitors were required to swear an oath not to kill the man who won her, or steal her from her rightful husband after the fact. Raiding was an accepted part of life, be it for gold, goods, food, cattle, or women. And of course we can't forget that Hades himself carried Persephone off to the Underworld to be his bride in the first place, which resulted in Persephone spending 6 months in Hades, and Demeter's joy which results in the shift in season to spring when Persephone returns to the world and her mother's arms again. (To say nothing of Zeus and Poseidon's myriad woman-stealing adventures.)

A demigod stealing a demigod or a normal woman isn't news, just as a god stealing a woman isn't anything shocking, but when Theseus and Pirithous traveled to the Underworld for Persephone, they seem to have crossed the line. Not only were they stealing a goddess, they were stealing the consort of a god, and as we all know, those gods? They weren't all that forgiving.

It seems simple, then. A clear-cut case of a demigod overreaching -- of Hubris, even.

But the sources don't all agree and next week, we'll touch on why.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Fall of Theseus (II)

Last week I mentioned that Theseus went on two (related) adventures, which are, in my opinion, at the heart of why we overlook his twilight years, and directly related to his fall from grace. I know the suspense has been killing you, so let's just get to the good stuff:

photo by me!
Rodin's The Bronze Age
And yes, it is the same sculpture,
different medium.
First, Theseus kidnapped Helen from Sparta, which resulted in Sparta choosing the next King of Athens; and Second, which goes hand in hand with the first, he acted against the gods and abandoned Athens by accompanying Pirithous on his quest to the underworld to steal Persephone. And he didn't mess with just any god, but Hades, the lord of the dead, to whom all Greeks entrusted their shades at the end of their lives. Not only that, Theseus returned to Athens less whole than he left it, the backs of his thighs torn off when he was pulled from the Chair of Forgetfulness. Rescued by Heracles. (If he'd only just stayed home, would he have kept his kingdom AND Helen? I wonder...)

When Theseus returns to Athens after these adventures, he wasn't warmly received by his people. In his absence, his cousin was appointed as King by Helen's brothers, who by the way, also took their sister after threatening the city, and Athens wasn't interested in giving him back his throne. Whatever good Theseus had done for them, his time was over, and his people exiled him. It isn't really a triumphant ending for a hero. It isn't even a glorious death. Possibly crippled and forsaken by his own city, Theseus seeks a quiet retirement on the island of Skyros -- where he either slips, or is pushed off a cliff to his death. The end. There isn't any elevation to godhood for Theseus, like Heracles. He just dies. Pathetically.

Ultimately, Theseus isn't a hero anymore. He's a man stripped of everything who comes to an ignominious end. So of course the stories told more frequently come from his glory days, his youth, before he messed it all up as a King. Maybe people wanted to remember him as a paragon of virtue and brilliance, not as the guy who got kicked out of his own kingdom.

And honestly? I'm still kind of hoping to find some reference to his living out the rest of his days at the bottom of the sea in Poseidon's palace. I mean, after all the rest of the tragedy that was his life, I think he at least deserves that much.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Fall of Theseus (I)

Rodin's The Bronze Age
photo by me!
Most of the stories about Theseus revolve around his early years -- his youthful vanquishing of the monstrous men along the gates to the underworld on the Isthmus road, his defeat of the Minotaur and the subsequent abandonment of Ariadne -- and a lot less attention is paid to his later life.

Most of the people who write fiction about Theseus or Helen of Troy skate over the place where their paths cross,* and we get kind of a highlights reel of his other adventures. Maybe he went with Heracles to see the Amazons. Maybe he brought democracy to Athens. He was for sure a king, and there's that business with his stolen Amazon bride, and the war with the Amazons, the death of Hippolytus, and his epic bromance with Pirithous... But most people don't know those stories very well. Most people aren't familiar with KING Theseus.


Well, it's probably in part because Theseus wasn't adopted by the Romans the same way that Heracles was. He didn't get a new name and new adventures, and he was never played by Kevin Sorbo in a live action tv show. (We will not speak of the atrocity that was IMMORTALS.) We have Plutarch, comparing Theseus to Romulus and glorifying both of them in a propaganda piece, and to be honest, there isn't really a lot of compelling storytelling about his twilight years. Theseus doesn't get his own letter, written by Ovid. And none of the surviving plays by Euripides are titled THESEUS. (There is Euripides' play about Hippolytus, of course, which is the exception to this rule, and also Euripides' play about Heracles, in which King Theseus guest stars, and has some really interesting things to say about the gods, as a contrast to Heracles himself.)

But I think there's maybe a reason why Theseus, ultimately, didn't get adopted by the Romans. Because there are two hugely problematic adventures which Theseus undertakes after he becomes King, and neither one of them ends well for Athens.

Which adventures were they? We'll lay them out next week!

*People skate over it because it's a later addition to the mythology. But I don't think it makes it any less significant or relevant -- it was important enough that they thought it was something that SHOULD be part of his story, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Iliad as Historical Record

The Trojan War is a fascinating event, at once both myth and understood as historical in nature. To the Greeks, there was no question of the fact that it had occurred-- even Thucydides accepts it as fact. They believed it had happened. Perhaps not to the scale of the poem, but a war had been waged between the Greeks and the Trojans. The poem was treated as historical record for a very, very long time, as much as it was a view into legend and later, the myths of the gods, and a work of art and literature.

Homer's Iliad (perhaps not quite as long as it is today, and certainly not exactly as it was written) was an oral recitation before it ever made it to paper--or scrolls, but we can still see in its language the devices used by a bard or story teller to complete the meter of the lines and allow the poet to remember what comes next. The poem is full of repetition. Phrases, even entire passages are reiterated. Some of these things are identifying characteristics such as "white-armed goddess Hera" and "bright-eyed Athena" and others are ritual, such as the description of how offerings and sacrifices were made to the gods. That the repetition is preserved in the poem as it was written down is fascinating, and it's a veritable gold mine of an example for writers who may be interested in trying to adapt their written work into something that could be sold on iTunes to the world of people attached to their mp3 players. These devices could serve us just as well as they did ancient bards.

The other beautiful (and problematic) thing about The Iliad is the smorgasbord of customs! Because it comes from an oral tradition, and the poem was refined by each teller for his time, using this catalog of phrases, they could and did insert new, more modern ones, as time went on, adding them to the archaic phrases and customs already in place. This means that looking at the Iliad for daily customs for a particular time is probably not going to give you a good picture of any specific time and place, but rather, an overview of customs for an extensive period in history from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age, thrown back on the Trojan war as an historical event.

In my personal opinion, the a lot of the value of The Iliad is not its preservation of an historical event, but in the preservation of the gods and their characters. Sure, it also gives us a look at how war was glorified and the ideas of the Greek culture in that regard, but it's hardly of the same historical significance in regard to the actual event it transcribes as, say, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. From the epics of Homer we are given a lot of information about the society and culture as a whole, especially its reverence for the gods that were worshipped. But its those gods that give the story mythological and legendary proportion. The gods involving themselves in mortal affairs, from Athena sweeping down to stay Achilles hand from striking at Agamemnon to Achilles own immortal heritage, and Helen's.

It's not unlike the Old Testament, when Prophets walked the earth and the voice of God boomed from the heavens. The destruction of Troy as a vendetta by Hera and Athena isn't that far different (though much more mercurial) than God's own destruction of cities and peoples that displeased Him. But the story does more than just capture these moments between gods and men, and goes so far as to show us the infighting and strife that must have been ongoing between Zeus and his wife and his entire family. We are given the understanding of the gods as a disagreeing family under the rule but not entirely submissive to, their patriarch.

We are also given to understand that a great war such as the one waged against Ilium was more than just mortal rage and lust for plunder, but set in motion by forces beyond mortal understanding and control. Ordained and encouraged by the gods, so to speak. A theme which I find fascinating to the extreme.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Iliad, an Example of Completely Unabridged Storytelling

Homer bust louvre front
Picture by Hay Kranen / PD via wiki commons
One of the things I always found incredibly frustrating when reading through Homer's Iliad is the alarming number of characters, and the excessive ongoing genealogies. There are so many people who are mentioned, along with their entire history of breeding, only so that their death can be cataloged as someone's (with an equally irritatingly elaborated upon list of forefathers) kill. Achaean and Trojan alike. If Homer were writing today, I can only imagine how much red ink would be spilled across the pages of his manuscripts in the ever-pressing drive to "tighten this up." But that said, if it weren't for Homer and his painstakingly unabridged storytelling, how much of the histories and genealogies of these heroes would have survived?

Part of this, I know, is related to the culture. Having your name remembered, even after your death, was a big deal. Going through the trouble of mapping out the ancestry of each particular hero could easily have been a gesture of respect to those ancestors and the hero himself. Not only that, but it's possible that some of his audience might have claimed descent from these same heroes, and in those cases they were certainly more likely to be recognized and the recitation would have carried that much more weight. From a strictly storytelling angle, it makes sense that Homer would want to make each of these men more sympathetic -- instead of a faceless, characterless name, with the inclusion of the genealogies of those fighting and dying, these warriors and soldiers become someone's son, someone's father, someone's husband, or long lost cousin, or shared ancestor. It humanizes the death and horror and glory of war in some small way, perhaps.

The fact that Odysseus ends up with an epic poem named for him and his journey home makes me wonder if we're missing a lot of other, smaller, tales as well. Stories and poems that go with, perhaps not every one of the characters named and described in depth, but many of these other men who go to their deaths in this war. Agamemnon does seem to have at his disposal a large number of men capable of heroic feats. An incredible number of kings and allies. What if these other characters and secondary heroes were adapted and created for the regional audiences? A poet in Sparta, might emphasize the Spartan contingent of warriors and heroes. If the poet is in the islands, he talks up the Ithacans or whichever other men are from the area. What if this is just another part of the catalog, depending on the audience that was listening, drawn from and excised as necessary for each regional retelling?

And isn't that one of the rules for writing? Know Your Audience! I can't imagine Homer wouldn't have taken that into account, that any bard wouldn't have lived and died by that same law. Even if the laws of hospitality were sacred, accidents could still happen, and I can only imagine they might have happened with greater frequency to men who offended the kings who hosted them.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Fall of Antaeus, Son of Poseidon

The Epic Wrestling Match
photo © me!
Antaeus was a son of Poseidon and Gaia, a giant who drew power directly from his mother -- that is, the earth itself. He was one of those jerks who wouldn't let anyone pass through his land without first defeating him in a wrestling match. (This is the kind of guy Theseus might have taken apart on the Isthmus Road, just for the record. And in fact, Theseus does defeat a similar Wrestle-or-Die figure in Kerkyon as one of his own labors. I'd imagine the parallels are deliberate.) But of course, Antaeus being Antaeus, and drawing power from the ground underneath him, he was unbeatable. The losers ended up dead, and their skulls shingled his temple roof to the glory of Poseidon.

Why those skulls didn't go to a temple to the glory of his mother, whose strength allowed him to perform these feats, I do not know. Maybe he was trying to get his dad's attention, because Poseidon was an absent father figure. Considering Poseidon and Zeus' track records, it isn't difficult to imagine that they neglected their less impressive children.

Anyway. One day, Heracles was passing through Libya (Antaeus' home turf) and Antaeus being Antaeus couldn't just let that opportunity go. I'm sure at that point he was thinking: YES. A real opponent! Or maybe something along the lines of: Haha! If I defeat Heracles I will be famous throughout all the lands and my name will be remembered for all time! Fame was, as we know from Achilles' choice, of great value to the Greeks. But either way, whether it was pride or because he just wanted to test himself, Heracles was made to wrestle him.

Now, this sculpture -- I don't know. Antaeus does not look very large for a giant, or else Heracles has got to be supersized for a man. Maybe it was a little bit of both. But regardless, the story ends the way you might expect. Heracles lifts Antaeus up off the ground in a crushing bear-hug, preventing the giant from drawing upon his mother's power. Antaeus weakens, and Heracles defeats him utterly.

Now, Heracles is kind of not the brightest crayon in the box himself, so some say that Athena told him how to win. But no matter how he figured it out, it seems kind of like dirty wrestling, to me.

...Not that Antaeus didn't deserve to reap what he sowed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Helen and Menelaus

I really want to like Menelaus. I really want him to be a hero. To be Helen's hero, and more than just the King Arthur to her Guinevere and Paris's Lancelot. Unfortunately, I'm not sure wanting it is enough.

So who was Menelaus? And what was his relationship to Helen before he became her husband?

Antonio Canova-Helen of Troy-Victoria and Albert Museum
Helen, from Wiki Commons
Photo by Yair Haklai
We don't have a lot of evidence. Helen's early life is usually summed up with Theseus's abduction as a few lines at best. We know that there is an account of Agamemnon and Menelaus being expelled from Mycenae when their father was killed and the throne usurped. And Tyndareus took them in, later helping them return to Mycenae and reclaim the city. But nothing I've read indicates the difference in age between Helen and Menelaus. How much older was he? Was Helen even born when Menelaus and Agamemnon stayed in Sparta?

Even if she weren't, the likelihood that Menelaus and Agamemnon were in and out of Sparta was probably high. The likelihood that Menelaus ran across Helen during her childhood, even higher. And it's entirely possible that he had his sights set on her as his bride from very early on, knowing that even if he couldn't persuade Tyndareus, Agamemnon, by all accounts a powerful man, probably could. And I suspect that Agamemnon knew full well his brother's desire, or else why would he have married Clytemnestra, and not the more beautiful Helen? She was certainly the greater prize.

Admittedly there was a complication of inheritance. The husband of Helen would become the king of Sparta, but Agamemnon probably wouldn't have minded in the slightest expanding his sphere of direct influence. He seemed driven by a lust for power and conquest. But did Menelaus share that lust? Was it Helen herself who captivated him, as much if not more than the throne of Sparta? Or did he simply want his own city to rule? An escape from his brother's control and command?

Brogi, Giacomo (1822-1881) - n. 4140 - Roma - Vaticano - Menelao - Busto in marmo
Menelaus, from Wiki Commons
If Helen was simply a means to an end, then no wonder she ran off with Paris. But if she wasn't-- if he loved her even more than Sparta's throne-- and let's not forget that Helen's beauty was such that even the mightiest of men fell within her thrall-- might he have developed a close relationship with her prior to their marriage? Kept a jealous eye on her interactions with other men? With his potential competition? What might that have driven him to? And how much harder might it have been for him when he realized she'd been abducted once already, by Theseus, a well known and highly acclaimed hero, if not an even more powerful king than Agamemnon.

In the Myths, Menelaus is relentless in trying to retrieve Helen while she's in Troy, he makes for a sympathetic character in the Iliad, and in the Odyssey, after he's brought Helen home again, and they begin to build their life together anew. But I don't buy that it's only about love. If Isocrates is right about Helen's beauty as POWER, ALL those heroes should have been on their knees before her, panting to have her back.

The thing that people overlook in the Iliad is that it's entirely possible that without Helen, Menelaus had no legitimacy as a king. If he HADN'T gone after Helen earnestly, what power would he have left? Everything he'd worked for and built in Sparta would have been forfeit, and whatever freedom he'd enjoyed as a king in his own right, as an independent political unit, would have been surrendered too. He'd be just another second son, serving his brother, the rightful king.

Could it still have been, in part, about love? Might Menelaus have been genuine in his affection? Sure. He might also have been just as "brainwashed" by Helen's beauty as Theseus, too. But there had to have been more going on between him and Helen before their marriage than is recorded, and I think whatever it was, it was the foundation for the trouble that came after.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Helen and Theseus: Another Reason Athens and Sparta Don't Get Along

This is called "The Espousal" but
I can't decide if they're celebrating
or if he's abducting her. Fitting, really!
image © me!
The conflicts between Sparta and Athens run deep and long, and as we all know from reading Homer and Herodotus, it was the habit of the ancient world to take common ideas and issues along with common ways-of-doing-things and reflect those back onto the struggles of their heroes in myth. Perhaps then, it would be stranger if Sparta and Athens did not have anything to fight over during the age of heroes.

What if, in part, this was the purpose of Theseus' abduction of Helen in the myths?

The House of Atreus was known to be cursed, after all, and I have no trouble believing that if Theseus made an honest offer of marriage to Tyndareus and it was refused in favor (either in fact, or by assumption) of Menelaus and Mycenae, Athens would find that snub very offensive indeed. How dare Sparta insult their hero by choosing a cursed man as the husband of Helen over Theseus?

But that wouldn't be all. You see, the conflict goes both ways. Say that, in retaliation of this snub, or even just for funsies, Theseus chooses to take what he wants after all. He's deserving. Certainly he is, by pedigree, a better match for Helen than Menelaus could ever be. Theseus is a son of Poseidon, a (for the moment) successful and powerful king, and a hero equal only to Heracles. Add into the equation the dodgy influence of piratical Pirithous, and it's easy to see how Theseus might be persuaded to pursue Helen without her father's consent. Even to go so far as to kidnap her (because it isn't like he hasn't whisked women off before--and that kind of behavior was well established by Heracles, and even more established by the behavior of the gods who did that kind of thing with great regularity. Helen herself is a product of this same entitlement, after all!).

Sparta, taking great offense by the kidnap of their princess and HEIR, sends off their best to get her back. Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux--the Dioscuri--find her if not in Athens, at the very least, under the power of Theseus, possibly even violated by him! I can't imagine Sparta not being highly insulted and infuriated by such a thing, and these Greeks-- they know how to hold a grudge.

Take into account the fact that in the process of Helen's retrieval, Castor and Pollux upset the inheritance of Athens by giving Menestheus control of the city, and you've got an even greater recipe for long-standing conflict. Sparta has just meddled in Athens' politics and put their man on the throne. You don't even need Athens to have been insulted by the choosing of Menelaus over Theseus first (though I will say that I find that to be pretty compelling).

In this one story, a relative latecomer to the drama and tragedy of Helen of Troy, the seeds of enmity between Sparta and Athens have been sewn. These Myths, after all, are the ancient Greek way of explaining the whys and wherefores.

So, why are Sparta and Athens constantly finding reasons to dispute with one another? Well you see, once long ago, there was a girl named Helen....

Just a thought.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Relating to Hera

As you know, Hera is the wife of Zeus, and Queen of the gods in Greek mythology. She's also pretty notorious for sentencing people to a) madness or b) death in punishment for Zeus finding them attractive and/or giving birth to them.

I'm not saying that Hera doesn't have perfectly good reason to be up in arms -- Zeus gives her justification after justification for any and all acts of vengeance, without even the slightest of apologies. His affair with Leda as a Swan, Europa as a bull, his affair with Callisto wherein he took the form of Artemis, even! There's quite an extensive list of his infidelities, and I'll tell you, if I were Hera, I'm not sure I'd be even half as reasonable as she was about the continued parade of indiscretions and lovechildren.

But Hera isn't a goddess of revenge. She's a goddess of marriage, childbirth, of women in general. The goddess of the pious wife, the loving mother. We just... don't see a lot of that in her myths. More often, we see her cursing Heracles with a madness which convinces him to murder his own wife and children, simply because he's a son of Zeus. We see the sly, deceitful Hera, seducing her husband for the sole purpose of circumventing his command in the Iliad. We see the woman who punishes other women for catching the eye of her husband, not unlike Athena punishes Medusa, when Poseidon ravages the poor priestess in the goddess's own temple. (And that, from the goddess of Wisdom and Reason!)

and her peacock
To the Romans, Hera was Juno, and their interpretation of her was slightly different, more solemn, a protector of the state. Even, perhaps, with a warrior element. There's no question that she's incredibly complex, in both interpretations. And I have to wonder, really. Was part of this complexity, this difficulty in her character, related to the difficulty men have in understanding women as mothers, wives, virgins? Is Hera's ultimate character the result of the male struggle to be anything but mind-boggled by women and their motivations?

One thing is certain: Hera makes for an easy villain in a lot of mythological retellings, and I'm always slightly baffled by how underutilized she is in that form -- especially when the most frequent substitution seems to be Hades.

images © me!

PSA: I'll be away from the blog for the next two weeks, but I'll be back again with new posts on July 3rd!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Centauromachy

A Dying Centaur
Normally I'm not so big into mythological monsters, but in delving into both Hippodamia and Pirithous's mythologies, I've had to make an exception for the centaurs. The Centauromachy, the war with the centaurs, doesn't seem to me to be something that can be overlooked for either of them.I can't get around the idea that the abduction of Hippodamia by the centaurs (her kin!) on her wedding day, of all days, and the subsequent bloodshed at the wedding feast, would be emotionally traumatizing not just for Hippodamia and Pirithous, but for the rest of the community as well, centaur and human alike.

Hippodamia was not the only victim on that day. Other Lapith women were abducted, too. Guests died fighting off the centaurs, and centaurs died fighting off the guests. And what about the centaurs who weren't involved? The females, colts, and fillies? There's little mention of their fates in the wedding feast brouhaha (Ovid's Metamorphoses give by far the most detailed account) , and while it's possible that only males had been invited to the celebration, but I sincerely doubt that those not guilty escaped the prejudices and anger of those who bore witness to that day. And I doubt, too, that some of the newly widowed centauresses didn't attempt to take their own revenge for the loss of their mates.

Most of the centaurs who attended Hippodamia's wedding feast didn't make it back home, after. In
contrast, many of the women were rescued, and far fewer of the men and heroes died. Ovid (from Nestor's perspective) illustrates a terrible bloodbath, including this moment:
In that din [the centaur] Aphidas lay with every vein relaxed in endless sleep, unwoken, undisturbed, sprawled on a shaggy bearskin from Mount Ossa, his wine-filled cup in his unconscious hand, out of the fight--in vain! Observing him lying apart there, Phorbas fingered firm his lance's thong : ‘You'd better mix,’ he cried ‘your wine with Styx's water!’ There and then he hurled his lance and through Aphidas' neck, as he lay sprawled face-up, the iron-tipped ash drove deep. Death came unfelt. Over the couch--into the cup--blood gushed from his full throat. (Metamorphoses, 12.316)

The fact of the matter is, the result of that day was a war, and the centaurs were expelled from their lands, hunted into extinction, in the end (and perhaps the Centauromachy itself is an explanation for why there are no more centaurs, wandering the plains or hunting in the forests). And war is rarely easy on the parties involved. Neither for those doing the fighting, nor for those waiting behind thick walls to learn whether or not their loved ones will be coming home.The Centaurmachy is an event which was never forgotten -- one of the few accounts of Pirithous' life, in fact! -- and I can only imagine, if it was so long remembered, the wounds it left behind.

images © me

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Sins of Paris

Paris (from wiki commons)
And so Theseus rightly felt love’s flame, for he was acquaint with all your charms, and you seemed fit spoil for the great hero to steal away, [...] His stealing you away, I commend; my marvel is that he ever gave you back. So fine a spoil should have been kept with constancy. Sooner would this head have left my bloody neck that you have been dragged from marriage-chamber of mine. One like you, would ever these hands of mine be willing to let go? One like you, would I, alive, allow to leave my embrace? If you must needs have been rendered up, I should first at least have taken some pledge from you; my love for you would not have been wholly for naught. Either your virgin flower I should have plucked, or taken what could be stolen without hurt to your virgin state.

So Paris writes to Helen in the Heroides, by Ovid.

But here's the thing about Paris. Pop-culture always tries to make him into some kind of coward, probably because he steals another man's wife, certainly because of the passage in The Iliad where he challenges Menelaus and then Aphrodite whisks him off before he can see it through to the finish, and Helen herself expresses disgust for his heroic character, or lackthereof, and those readers who are paying attention will point out in their arguments that Paris' weapon of choice is the bow and arrow, the "weapon of cowards."

The truth is, though, that Paris doesn't do anything other heroes haven't done. Maybe Paris isn't a Theseus, but Ovid certainly shows us an Odysseus-like schemer. charismatic and brilliant, charming and wily. And it makes sense -- it takes an incredible amount of self-confidence and cunning to show up as a guest in another man's house and devise a plan to seduce said man's wife underneath the nose of his host with the sole purpose of stealing her. It takes nerve to challenge that man later on the field of battle, knowing his reputation as a warrior. And as for the bow and arrow, Heracles was known for employing one, too, and I don't know anyone who would consider him a coward.

What gets Paris into trouble is only the context of his actions. There's the oath of Helen's suitors, of course, where they all have sworn to protect Menelaus' possession of Helen, but even so, Paris' greatest and only real sin is breaking Xenia: the sacred laws of hospitality.

In the Heroides, Paris says:
My passion for you I have brought; I did not find it here. It is that which was the cause of so long a voyage, for neither gloomy storm has driven me hither, nor a wandering course; [...] It is you I come for – you, whom golden Venus has promised for my bed; you were my heart’s desire before you were known to me. I beheld your features with my soul ere I saw them with my eyes; rumour, that told me of you, was the first to deal my wound.
And then, later:
And do not fear lest, if you are stolen away, fierce wars will follow after us, and mighty Greece will rouse her strength. Of so many who have been taken away before, tell me, has any one ever been sought back by arms? Believe me, that fear of yours is vain. In the name of Aquilo the Thracians took captive Erechtheus’ child, and the Bistonian shore was safe from war; Pegasaean Jason in his new craft carried away the Phasian maid, and the land of Thessaly was never harmed by Colchian band. Theseus, too, he who stole you, stole Minos’ daughter; yet Minos called the Cretans ne’er to arms. The terror in things like these is wont to be greater than the danger itself, and where ‘tis our humour to fear, we shame to have feared too much.

Had Paris arrived in Sparta with a raiding party and made off with Helen in the night, it would have been just another day in the bronze age -- but because he stole her away AFTER he had accepted guest-friendship with Menelaus (falsely, I might add, because he knew why he was there from the start!), he had committed a grave, grave sin which would, without question, incite the wrath of the gods. In fact, if Paris had stolen her away in a raid, it's possible that the oath wouldn't have been enough to bind the suitors to his cause at all. Paris is an outside party, and the fact that Menelaus would not have been able to defend what was rightfully his in battle, his own wife and kingdom, no less, would almost certainly have shamed him, even if he'd known exactly who had taken Helen and where to wage a war to get her back, which would probably have been less likely in a raid-scenario.

The fact of the matter is, stealing Helen wasn't Paris' greatest crime, and it certainly wasn't the act which ruined his reputation. And Paris? He wasn't a coward. He just thought that because Aphrodite had given him the nod, he was within his rights to ignore sacred law to take what he believed was rightfully his.

That just sounds like regular old Hubris to me.

Same old, same old.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

More Hippodamia (And her Centaurs)

I'm not sure why Hippodamia's abduction by Centaurs is such a popular motif for artists -- just like I'm not sure why Leda and the Swan is even more so -- but this particular sculpture is one of my favorites.

I love the contrast between the grace of Hippodamia's form, all smooth lines and curves, and the emphasis on the Centaur's pure muscle mass, brutish and physically powerful. His shoulders ripple, his flanks and forequarters dimpled and defined. In comparison to Hippodamia, he's massive!

Unlike the centaur in the previous bronze (which was far more Art Deco in style) there isn't anything elfin about his features. Hollow-cheeked and thick-nosed, this centaur is rawly human. A man lost to madness, made all the more clear by the fallen amphorae, spilling wine beneath his hooves.

Hippodamia on the other hand, seems either to have fainted from the shock of her abduction, or else she's flopping like a fish to make herself as awkward to carry as possible. Generally, she's portrayed as helpless -- a damsel in distress. But I can't help but think it must have been more than wine which provoked the centaurs to kidnap one of their own. And I really have a hard time believing that a woman referred to as "kin" to the centaurs and tamer of horses would just give up without a fight.

If the centaurs are uncivilized, brutish and barbaric, how civilized was Hippodamia herself? Why should she have been anything less than wild (by Greek standards), as well?

Maybe that's why I like the myth of Hippodamia -- because there's so much potential there, to build a strong woman from the bare-bones account of her life. What's more, it strikes me as something of an untold story, because the depictions of Hippodamia tend toward the hysterical woman, despairingly throwing herself about while waiting to be rescued by her pirate-hero-king husband, Pirithous.

After all, no "ordinary" woman could really hope to cope with such an outrageous personality as Pirithous possesses, and I'm willing to bet he wouldn't want to be saddled with just any woman for a wife. Hippodamia must be something more, something greater, than what we're given to understand by these works of art, and that is definitely a story worth telling.
Photography in this post © me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Europa and the Bull

Europa at the National Gallery
Europa was probably the daughter of a Phoenician King, Agenor, and the story goes that one day she was out in the fields with a passel of other maids when she came across a bull of uncommon beauty. Not only that, but this bull was so tame it let her weave wreaths of flowers around his horns (and I can just picture this group of girls making flower wreaths and laughing and daring one another to toss them around the bulls horns -- I don't know about you.)

Europa, enamored by his gentleness as well as his beauty, and maybe not really aware of Zeus' propensity for making off with women since she isn't exactly Greek, climbed up on the bull's back. The bull, really Zeus in disguise, promptly runs for it. He goes straight for the sea, where he swims and swims and swims until they reach Crete, and Europa is well beyond the reach of any help. At this point, he either reveals himself, and then consorts with her, or consorts with her and then reveals himself. There isn't really any knowing. But either way, Europa is made off with, and either way, she ends up married to a Cretan prince, giving birth to Minos, and becoming the grandmother of Ariadne.

According to Apollodorus:
Zeus loved her, and turning himself into a tame bull, he mounted her on his back and conveyed her through the sea to Crete. There Zeus bedded with her, and she bore Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthys;

One of the things that strikes me about this story is how very different Europa's response is to an impressive specimen of bull-ness. In this day and age, how many princesses are spending time with the cattle? And how many wouldn't hesitate to climb up on the back of one, no matter how tame it seemed? Maybe if you were raised on the farm, it would be one thing -- but bulls? They're big animals, and no matter how familiar, they deserve a healthy dose of respect.

Sure, part of it might be Zeus' mojo, but part of it is definitely the difference in context and culture. Back in the Bronze Age, the wealth came from the land, from the farm and livestock, and while I doubt Europa was mucking stables or herding her father's cows, you can bet she was a lot more familiar with cattle than the majority of the western world is, today. Bulls and cattle wandering around? Nothing to worry about at all!

Not to say all the women were leaping up on their backs, but -- it's not nearly as outrageous for then as it sounds to us now.

images in this post © me!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ariadne and Dionysus

We've talked a little bit about Ariadne before, in relation to the role of women in Mycenaean civilization (and the truth is, there is no certainty at all, in that regard) but I wanted to talk a little bit more about her, and her relationship to the gods -- particularly Dionysus.

Ariadne and Dionysus -- Ariadne looks a little
bit annoyed with her husband/consort.
Ariadne was a daughter of Minos, sometimes considered a high priestess, sometimes associated with the goddess of the labyrinth, if such a goddess existed. Certainly she was no less a princess than Theseus was a king, and just as certainly, her life was turned upside down by Theseus' arrival on Crete with the tributes sent to King Minos (and King Minos himself was a son of Europa, most probably by Zeus -- more on him in a future post.)

Whether Ariadne deliberately cultivated Theseus or was simply taken in by his charm and valor, there isn't really any knowing. Some people theorize that she, as a goddess/high priestess herself, used Theseus to escape the Labyrinth and whatever magic held her upon Crete (and I kind of like that idea, if only because it gives Ariadne some agency of her own), but more often, she's just in love with our hero, and she and Theseus run off together after his triumph over the Minotaur. At which point Theseus either abandons her (with no scruples at all) or is made to give her up to the god Dionysus. Sometimes she dies in childbirth on the island or just of grief, too, though it's generally agreed she ends up as Dionysus' consort and wife, and elevated to the rank of goddess. All in all, not SO bad a fate, if so!

Ariadne looks a lot happier from this angle
Dionysus himself is an interesting character, though, and as a son of Zeus himself, Ariadne would be both his niece and his wife, before all was said and done. This isn't anywhere close to the worst case of incest among the gods, and doesn't really seem to occur to anyone as worth commenting upon, in the source material. And I wonder what drew Dionysus to Ariadne in particular -- if he did not specifically demand her, might he have been summoned to her because she had abandoned herself to her grief, wholeheartedly? Or perhaps the fact that she had given herself up completely into Theseus' keeping, given herself up to her emotions in the face of all reason. That does seem like kind of Dionysus' specialty, after all, as a god of  madness. If he had already claimed her as his own before Theseus ever arrived -- well, I'm not sure why, but beauty has been reason enough in the past for any god to act.

One thing we know for certain: no one can agree on exactly what happened between Ariadne and Theseus, or even between Ariadne and Dionysus. But maybe that isn't what matters. Maybe what matters is that we're still wondering, all these years later.

above images © Amalia

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Isocrates on Helen

Isocrates makes an interesting argument regarding Helen's beauty which I think is worth sharing:

Helen of Troy16. [...]While most of the demigods owed their existence to Zeus, she was the only woman of whom he condescended to be called the father. While he took most interest in the son of Alcmene and the children of Leda, he so far showed preference for Helen over Heracles, that, having granted such strength to the latter that he was enabled to overcome all by force, he allotted to Helen the gift of beauty, which is destined to bring even strength into subjection to it. 17. Knowing, further, that distinction and renown arise, not from peace, but from wars and combats, and wishing not only to exalt their bodies to heaven, but to bestow upon them an everlasting remembrance, he ordained a life of toil and danger for the one, while he granted to the other beauty that was universally admired and became the object of universal contention.

Basically, he says, Zeus gave Helen the ABSOLUTE most powerful gift, raising her up over Heracles, because even strength is helpless in the face of such beauty as Helen possessed.  And not only that! But as further proof of his favor, he made sure Helen would NEVER be forgotten, because, basically, she would be fought over forever by everyone.

But the thing Isocrates fails to take into consideration is this: Heracles can choose where to leverage his strength. He can decide to ransack a city, or kill a lion with nothing but a club and his bare hands. He has CONTROL over his strengths, for the most part -- unless he's being directly manipulated by the gods, or else has flown into a rage (possibly because of direct manipulation by the gods.)

Helen, on the other hand, is given this incredible gift, this incredible beauty, but left with no control over it. None. And to add insult to injury, she is BLAMED and held solely accountable for the results. She is cursed for causing the Trojan War, cursed for betraying and abandoning her husband and daughter. All the blood of all the men who follow her to Troy, and all the men who fight for her right to remain there is on her hands, all that death on her head, and her head alone.

Yes, Helen was remembered. But not as a hero. Unlike Odysseus, and Heracles, and Theseus, Helen is not famous for her noble deeds.

She is infamous for her lack of virtue.

If that's how Zeus treats his favorites, I'd rather be overlooked altogether.