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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