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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Writer-Cave Calls, So Let Me Answer In Song

I'm still technically in the writer-cave, in spite of what the last couple of posts would have you believe -- but I wanted to take a short break from mythology posts (which require time I really should be spending on Hippodamia and Pirithous) to share what being in that cave feels like, sometimes.

In song!

(You might remember Dar Williams from one of my posts before Christmas -- her latest Album, IN THE TIME OF GODS is mostly songs inspired by Classical Myth.)

And of course, there's this entirely awful feeling of desperation, sometimes, that comes with being a writer -- I'd advise us all not to take the route suggested in this Beatles song, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't felt this way, at some point or another during the process of getting where I am today.

Don't worry, we'll be back to regularly scheduled mythology posts next week! (And hopefully by then, I'll have sorted out what comes next in this manuscript, and the words will be flying from my fingers!)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Poseidon is Classier than Zeus (Poseidon and Tyro)

Neptune with a Hippocamp
Yes it is crooked. I suck at photography.
So here's the thing. I kind of like Poseidon. There's something about him that captures my heart in spite of the fact that he shares MANY of Zeus's flaws -- particularly in the way he uses women to slake his lust. It's possible my appreciate for Poseidon might just be the reflected glory of my absolute adoration of Theseus, his son, but then there's also the story of his affair with Tyro, which could kind of almost be considered romantic maybe if one overlooks the fact that it's all done under false pretenses.

According to Apollodorus (1.9.8):
Now Tyro, daughter of Salmoneus and Alcidice, was brought up by Cretheus, brother of Salmoneus, and conceived a passion for the river Enipeus, and often would she hie to its running waters and utter her plaint to them. But Poseidon in the likeness of Enipeus lay with her, and she secretly gave birth to twin sons, whom she exposed.

But Homer! Oh, the way Homer tells this story, in the Odyssey makes me really appreciate Poseidon's class:
She [Tyro] fell in love with the river Enipeus who is much the most beautiful river in the whole world. Once when she was taking a walk by his side as usual, Neptune, disguised as her lover, lay with her at the mouth of the river, and a huge blue wave arched itself like a mountain over them to hide both woman and god, whereon he loosed her virgin girdle and laid her in a deep slumber. When the god had accomplished the deed of love, he took her hand in his own and said, 'Tyro, rejoice in all good will; the embraces of the gods are not fruitless, and you will have fine twins about this time twelve months. Take great care of them. I am Neptune, so now go home, but hold your tongue and do not tell any one.'

The problem with all of this, of course, is that it's still incredibly deceitful. But I suppose if she thought she was making love with the River (or did he put her to sleep and then make love to her? I'm going to hope that wasn't the situation) then at least she must have rejoiced in her unrequited love being fulfilled at last, maybe. Until Poseidon revealed himself, anyway. But even then. The way this particular translation presents it feels very... Old Testament Word of God to Mary regarding Jesus. And of course, if we're to believe Apollodorus, it seems that Tyro wastes no time in discarding the fruits of that union, but that could very well have been because of other pressures -- her father, perhaps, who wanted to see her married, and feared anyone worth anything as a match would refuse if she came with twin bastard sons of Poseidon. And let's face it, that was bound to be a consideration. Unlike the Aegeus/Poseidon/Aethra business which resulted in Theseus, these twins weren't coming with a kingdom for their future inheritance. They were just coming.

But I've got to admit that I do love the image of the giant blue wave arching itself over the two of them as a little love shack. And, wonder of wonders, aside from being knocked up, Tyro didn't get smote by any other gods or goddesses for the trouble Poseidon brought her! (In this instance, I think Tyro won the lottery--Poseidon's consort/wife Amphitrite did not seem NEARLY as interested in taking revenge on the women he seduced.) She just went on to be married to Cretheus -- father of Aeson, and as a result, grandfather of that Jason.

The twins she bore Poseidon were Pelias and Neleus. As you might imagine, they survived their exposure to grow up and cause trouble in the usual heroic style. Learning their true heritage and killing some people while earning the enmity of the gods. Pelias in particular seemed to get on Hera's bad side, which isn't typically the BEST idea.

According to Apollodorus, Neleus founded Pylos, and was the father of Nestor, a hero/wise-old-king from the Iliad.*  At the opposite end of Greece, Pelias wound up in Thessaly where he became King of Iolcus and eventually sent Jason (his half-brother, Aeson's son) on his famous quest for the Golden Fleece with the Argonauts.

Like I said. Trouble in the usual heroic style.

*Pretty sure this means that Nestor is Theseus's nephew, since Theseus would have been a half-brother of  Neleus. Which is pretty fascinating. All these guys are related like weirdy/awesome, and I really find it strange that it doesn't get pointed out more in our modern retellings. I get that the Greeks might not have cared, or even considered it a true relation, but for a modern audience, it might be a useful framing.
Crooked and non-crooked photographs belong to me.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Theseus Is Not Your Typical Bronze Age Hero

In the Bronze Age, the definition of Hero was very different. The raiding and the stealing women and the warlording, the pirating. It's something we've touched on quite a bit on the blog in relation to Pirithous, particularly. But what about Theseus?

At a later age, Theseus was known both for his kindness to women and his kindness to slaves and the weak, and I've always felt that Theseus' myths reveal a great contradiction, even inside his own character, between what was considered heroic in that time period, and how he behaved -- for example, his abandonment of Ariadne (while perfectly in line with heroics of the time) doesn't really jive with his creation of this feast day to honor the woman who lent him her cow in order to tame the bull at Marathon, and the way he continued to honor her in perpetuity for her help. Would a man who repays that small help from a woman so grandly repay Ariadne for HER sacrifice and aid so cruelly as to abandon her without a moment's thought or regret?

I have a hard time reconciling it, personally, which is why I think keeping the gods in these myths is so important. Without the hands of the gods manipulating and abusing these heroes, their actions make so much less sense. Their *characters* make so much less sense.

Yes, Theseus must prove himself, and there are plenty of ways in which he does so in a way that is related more to self-sacrifice than self-service. Yes, his primary motivation is to preserve the memory of his name, to build reputation and be known. But Theseus takes up this call differently than, say, Heracles. He doesn't just go about looting and pirating for the sake of looting and pirating. He clears the Isthmus road of the monstrous villains who lurk upon it, making the way safe for travelers and trade. He goes to Crete to liberate Athens. He even gives up some small measure of his power as king to allow for his people to have a say in their governance, if the Theseus as the Father of Democracy is to be believed. These are the things Theseus is known for, the way in which his name is remembered.

No matter what the meaning of hero was in the bronze age (or the Homeric age), these are all still remarkable achievements, and it opens the door to allow for a slightly different KIND of hero, for that period. (With Pirithous at his side to remind us of all the less savory meanings of the word Hero, of course. The braggarting, the swagger, the arrogance and righteous belief that anything you had the strength to take was yours to make off with, the glory without consideration for anyone else, at the expense of everyone else.) Theseus would NEVER have sat out during the Trojan war, and let his fellow soldiers die just because his prize was stolen from him, and the slight to his honor as a result. But then again, Theseus would probably not have served under Agamemnon to begin with. (Would Agamemnon even have been able to hold so much influence, to be the warlord he was, if Theseus had still been King of Athens?)

But is it any wonder that the Athenians would latch on to these virtues? That Theseus would possess the seeds for them, when he is THEIR hero, particularly. The answer to Heracles. I mean, we can sit here and debate the chicken or the egg -- which came first, and what does it mean for the actuality and historicity of Theseus, King of Athens. Did the Athenians read all of these virtues back into their hypothetical founding father, or did he possess these virtues to begin with, and those ideals carried forward through the ages, a lasting mark of his reign?

For myself, I want to believe the latter. I want to believe that Athens developed as it did (in contrast to Sparta and the other city-states) BECAUSE there was some seed planted by those early kings. That Theseus came first, and the rest followed.