Jul 25, 2010

Theseus and Ariadne

One of the best known myth-tales from classical times is that of the Athenian hero Theseus and the Cretan Minotaur. Infatuated with the arrival of the foreigner and handsome prince, Ariadne (daughter of king Minos and step-sister of the monster) helps Theseus to kill the living hybrid and get out safely from the gloomy and winding labyrinth. Later she escapes from the island with his new fiancee, leaving family and friends behind.
Why ? Simply because she was in love.

Ariadne, by John William Waterhouse
Ariadne is abandoned in Naxos, not knowing she will become the wife of mighty Dionysus
Painting by John William Waterhouse

Is this the end of the story ? Not even near !

Theseus abandons Ariadne in the island of Naxos and sails home to meet his unfortunate father Aegeus, who will soon commit suicide due to his son's neglect. What about Ariadne ? She is to marry Dionysus, God of wine and ecstasy.

Here are the Wikipedia links to the full story of Theseus and Ariadne.

What comes next is part of a blog-posting I came across which deals with the psycological and affective "behind the scenes" of Theseus and Ariadne.
Did Ariadne leave her family for love ? Was it a command of the Gods ? Destiny ? What did she feel ? What went through Theseus' mind when he anandoned her ?

It starts here ...

I try to imagine Theseus’s shipride to Crete–how he and his fellow travellers were stripped of their weapons as soon as they boarded ship, and then forced to row, side by side, the long voyage to the land of the enemy. How close they must have grown as every day and every league drew them nearer to the end of so many things. Did they talk about their youths? their mothers? their sweethearts? Maybe they confided in each other their plans for farming peaceably or fighting well or nurturing families, plans that they had fostered since they were little. These futures were to be sacrificed, and the sweeter the future, the greater the sacrifice. I wonder if this comforted them. I wonder if they recognized themselves in the throes of their fear and grief, stripped of time like that, taken from their homes, their families and their pasts, sent off to a strange place where time for them would end, and that end was absolutely knowable and terrifying. And even as they grew closer and grew to love each other in their misery, and learned how to comfort the ones who were always crying, they were also growing nearer to the end of that closeness, the end of comfort, the end of love.

Did they dream? Did they have nightmares of running in slow motion through a pitch-black labyrinth, pounding against walls and tripping over stairs while their ears were flooded by the roar of the monster coming closer, coming to tear them into pieces and eat them alive?

Then they landed, maybe they were enchained, maybe they cried, most likely they went into shock at the naked imminence of their deaths. I imagine them divided from the Cretans by hatred, by fear, by language . . . . a babbling and antagonistic crowd gathered around them, poking, prodding, leering, doing as we do when we are about to knowingly hurt somebody: blaming it on them. Theseus would have kept a brave face. He’d already proven himself a fearless hero, and the experience had made him cocksure. He believed in his blood that he was meant for great things.

The myths say that Ariadne was made by one of the goddesses to fall in love with Theseus, but if there are no goddesses than this is a fiction and Ariadne fell in love for the usual reasons. I can see how standing on the dock in the middle of all that rabble, commanding everyone’s attention with his strength and beauty, that Theseus was magnetic. So maybe it started with a spark of attraction and awe. Or maybe Ariadne saw Theseus and immediately recognized him as a kindred soul, someone she had known in past lives and who was therefore instantly knowable and lovable to her. Or it could have been pity for the Athenians that inspired her to help them, and she just chose Theseus to help directly because he was their leader, and fell in love from there. Maybe she just didn’t like being alone, or maybe she was rebelling against her Dad. Maybe she was simply ambitious, or tired of Crete, or hungry for adventure. Maybe maybe maybe. I’m not sure it matters, because the result is the same: she loved him suddenly and passionately.

I think of her faith in love, and I’m touched or appalled. She loved Theseus so much that she threw away her father, her mother, her family, her throne, and her home. She loved him so much that she trusted him completely. “If I help you, will you take me away with you and make me your wife?” she asked. Theseus said, “Yes.” She didn’t hold anything for ransom: right up front she gave him the thread, the sword, and the directions through the labyrinth. Because he said he loved her, she gave him everything.

So what about Theseus? Did he mean it when he said, “yes,” or was he saying whatever it took to survive and become the hero of his people? Maybe he was sincere when he said yes, I love you, and just as sincere at Naxos when he said to himself, no, I don’t want to take her home. What was the value of his word? Having said yes, even if he’d tired of Ariadne by the time they got to Naxos, shouldn’t he have kept his promise so that his word remained a true and constant thing? Or was it vanity and cowardice? Was he too afraid of Athenian opinion to remain loyal to the daughter of the enemy, even if she did save his life? Or was it hypocrisy: some scholars say that, as a rule, Greek heroes in the end find it unforgivable that a woman would betray her own kind, even if it’s to save the Greek hero, and the Greek hero inevitably punishes her for the betrayal after he’s benefited from it.

Did Theseus believe in love? A man who would risk sacrificing his life to save his people but not consider sacrificing any freedom, pride, or pleasure to save the woman who saved him. It’s possible, then, that he didn’t believe in love. I guess Athenians to this day, though, are grateful for the lie that saved their legendary King and preserved Athens. What they will never know is whether Theseus might have been even greater, and Athens even more wonderful, had Theseus kept his word to Ariadne despite the cost. Perhaps a future was lost in which a powerful and brave woman inspired and influenced a great king. Perhaps a future was lost wherein Theseus let nothing, especially not the betrayal of a woman who loved and helped him, chip away at his integrity. In that future, maybe Theseus feels bold and pure for longer and therefore rules with greater integrity and confidence. Because maybe abandoning Ariadne put a crack in his virtue that gradually opened into a fissure. And thus he matured into the kind of man who on a lark, with his best friend Pirthouous, would abduct a seven-year-old Helen and have his mother keep the little girl prisoner until she was old enough to marry, who became the kind of man who would help his best friend try to steal another man’s wife–a god’s wife, in fact.

Ariadne alone on Naxos and abandoned, maybe pregnant or maybe rescued by Dionysus, cursed Theseus in her grief. She cursed him to forget to change the sail from black to white to signal victory to his father. So when poor Aegeus, who had kept watch on that cliff for months, finally saw a speck on the horizon, he held his breath until it came close enough to make out. The anticipation he must have felt! Because he’d missed his son so much, and worried over him, grieved for him, prayed for him, imagined this moment. . . and here he came at last. . .. Then it took one split second for Aegeus to see the black sail, to feel his heart break in two, and to let go of life and fall into the sea. Suddenly, just like that, Theseus became King.

When he was an old man himself, Theseus would stand on that same cliff and look out at the ocean, imagining Naxos just beyond the horizon. He would allow himself for a few seconds to imagine Ariadne years ago waking up from her dream on the beach all alone, with Theseus completely gone. The weeping and the pacing and the shocked disbelief, the torturous helplessnees of loving somebody who doesn’t love you. The lamenting. The heart-crushing pain. Did she drown herself? Grow old and bitter? Marry somebody else? He would never know anything for certain except that he’d done her harm. He would think this, and maybe remorse would clench his chest, because the guilt engendered by that decision might have flavored everything that came after it: his rule of Athens, his adventures abroad, his subsequent love affairs. Maybe he felt regret. But the abandonment left the sail black, which killed his father, which made him king. Power and adventure or love and sacrifice? If Theseus had it to do all over again, would he have chosen differently?

And that’s why he’s like the ship of Theseus. Over time, it doesn’t really change. It’s the same ship, and like the ship, Theseus would have made the same choices. Or the ship only looks the same but actually has been fundamentally transformed over time. And like the ship, Theseus with the wisdom of age knows now he might not have betrayed Ariadne, he might’ve saved his father’s life, and had time to grow wiser before becoming king. And thus he might have become an old man standing on a high cliff without this regret, guilt, or anguish in his heart.

Interestingly, legend has it that the next great love of Theseus’s life was Antiope, an Amazon warrior — sister to the queen of the Amazons, in fact. She was killed fighting in battle by Theseus’s side.

Taken from "Theseus and Ariadne" (A world in a Grain of Sand)

Mar 8, 2010

Battle of Marathon

Ten years before the famous Spartan "Last Stand" (Battle of Themopylae - Leonidas' 300 heroic army), the Persian empire had already made a futile attempt to enslave Mainland Greece.
Marathon, a city state near Athens, was the perfect setting for this early stand.

Video coming from The History Channel - Battle of Marathon

The year is 490 BC; the Greco Persian Wars had already started and King Darius (Xerxes' father) is leading the Asian army to subjugate the Hellenic city-states. After a series of victories, the Persians arrive at the shores of Marathon, where they are "received" by general Miltiades and his Athenian hoplites. Though the Spartans were early invited to hold the Persian invasion side by side with the Athenians, they only arrived late after the Persians had already fled back to Asia.

Ten years later Darius' heir, Xerxes, was back again in Greece to try to finish what his father had already started. After an initial success in Thermopylae and Artemisium (480 BC), the Persians were later defeated at Salamis and Plataea (479 BC), giving a final victory to the Greeks and expelling the Persian Empire from their territory.

The History Channel, once again, has made a good job at delivering this part of history to a wide audience. We can argument that it's a bit "cinematographic" and "mythological", putting Miltiades as the strategic saviour of all Greece and other details to take into consideration. Nevertheless, their job is great; an entertaining must see !

The iconic Marathon race (Wikipedia modified version)

According to the Herodotus, father of History, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides (or Philippides in some accounts) was sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance before the battle, covering the distance of 140 miles in two days. Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the 25 or so miles back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the quantity of armour, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived back in the late afternoon, in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus completing the Athenian victory.

Later, in popular imagination, these two events became confused with each other, leading to a legendary, but inaccurate version of events. This myth has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with the word "Nenikēkamen!" (We were victorious!), whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion.

When the idea of a modern Olympics became a reality at the end of the 19th century, the initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event, recalling the ancient glory of Greece. The idea of organizing a 'marathon race' came from Michel Bréal, who wanted the event to feature in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens. This idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. This would echo the legendary version of events, with the competitors running from Marathon to Athens. So popular was this event that it quickly caught on, becoming a fixture at the Olympic games, with major cities staging their own annual events. The distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, though for the first years it was variable, being around 25 miles (40 km) — the approximate distance from Marathon to Athens.

Jan 21, 2010

Monsters of Classical Mythology

Monsters in classical mythology are typically part animal and part human, or else they constitute a collection of animal graftings. They are not really horror monsters, just unpleasant or nasty afflictions sent by the gods. They often do no more than throw into relief the heroism of the main character (Perseus, Oedipus, Odysseus, Theseus) by existing simply to be overcome or destroyed as obstacles to his goal.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Cerberus, Medusa, Centaur, Sphinx, Pegasus, Echidna, Lernean Hydra, Harpies, Typhon, Cyclop, Minotaur, Chimera, Hecatoncheires, Argus, Triton, Scylla, Satyr, Griffin
Cerberus, Minotaur and Echidna
Slideshow in QuickTime Version (17.6 MB)

The watchdog of the realm of Hades, generally described as being a three-headed dog with a serpent tail, and on his back innumerable snakes' heads. He is believed to be the son of Echidna and Typhon. Chained in front of the gates of the Underworld, he terrorizes souls upon their entering. You can catch a glimpse of him in Virgil's Aeneid, Book VI (Aeneas' journey into the underworld) and in Dante's Inferno. In other stories, Cerberus was bested by men such as Heracles and Orpheus.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Cerberus

Once a beautiful woman, Medusa was the child of Phorcys and Ceto. Of the three "gorgons", Medusa was the only mortal. Their hair was a mass of serpents; they had huge tusks, hands of bronze, and golden wings enabling them to fly. Anyone who encountered their gaze was turned to stone immediately from a horrible fear and loathing. Poseidon was the only immortal not fearful of Medusa since he fathered a child with her. Medusa was defeated by Perseus, who managed to chop off her head by looking at her through a looking-glass, which was most likely a bronze shield. This story can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Athena made use of Medusa's head by fixing it to the center of her shield or her aegis.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Medusa

Is the mixture of a serpent and a woman, a beautiful fair-faced nymph from the waist up, but a horrible serpent below. She grew up in her cave and used her beautiful head and torso to lure men but once they were trapped, her serpent nature took over and she ate them raw. Echidna mated with the storm god Typhon and gave birth to a great lot of famous monsters: Chimaera, the Hydra of Lernae, the dragons of Colchis and the garden of the Hesperides, the Gorgons, the eagle that eats Prometheus’ liver, Cerberus and its brother Orthrus. The hundred-eyed Argos kills Echida in her sleep to prevent her from eating him as she has eaten other travelers.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Echidna

Lernaean Hydra
A snake with numerous heads that were sometimes said to be human as well. It was brought up near the source of the river Amymone in order to provide a test for Heracles. The breath of the Hydra was so venomous that anyone who approached it would die, even if the monster was sleeping. Heracles thought to destroy it by cutting off its heads, but as soon as he did so more heads grew in their place. Therefore Heracles seared the bleeding necks of the monster with a torch in order to prevent growth that way. According to some legends one of the heads was immortal, but Heracles cut it off anyway and buried it deep in the earth. Heracles also dipped his arrowheads in the Hydra's blood and made them extremely poisonous.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Lernaean Hydra

Winged horse of Bellerophon. He was the offspring of Poseidon and the Gorgon Medusa. The winged steed was born when the blood fell into sea from Medusa's neck. Pegasus was born at the same time as Chrysaor. Bellerophon was only able to tame the steed when Athena gave the hero a golden bridle. Bellerophon used Pegasus in all his adventure: killing the monster Chimaera, defeating the Solymi and Amazons. When Bellerophon thought to fly Pegasus to Olympus, the home of the gods, they send a gadfly to sting Pegasus. Bellerophon was thrown off his horse; the hero became lame for his misdeed. After this, Pegasus lived in the stable in Olympus offering his service to Zeus, carrying his thunderbolts.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Medusa

Birds with the heads of women, long claws, faces pale with hunger, which leave behind filth and stench. They were originally sent by Zeus/Jove to torment a blinded soothsayer, Phineas. Driven away by the heroes of the Argonaut expedition, they took refuge on an island on which that Aeneas lands in Virgil's Aeneid, Book III. Aeneas and his men see goats and oxen first, and so slaughter a batch and plan a barbecue, being sure to say grace: "Then call the gods for partners of our feast". The Harpies "snatch the meat, defiling all they find, (...) and parting leave a loathesome stench behind." In other words, every time Aeneas tries to get the picnic going, the Harpies crap all over the food. So they prepare an all-out war with the birds.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Harpies

These beings are giants with one enormous eye in the middle of their forehead. In Hesiod, the three sons--Arges, Brontes, and Steropes--of Uranus and Gaea, the personifications of heaven and earth, were Cyclopes. They were thrown into the underworld by their brother Cronus, one of the Titans, after he dethroned Uranus. Zeus released the Cyclopes from the underworld and they gave him the gifts of thunder and lightning. In Alexandrine poetry, the Cyclopes were considered merely as subordinate spirits: smiths and craftsmen who made the weapons for the gods. They forged Zeus' lightning bolts. In Homer's Odyssey, the Cyclopes are shepherds from Sicily. They are lawless, savage and cannibalistic. They fear neither gods nor humans. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus is trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon. In order to escape from the cave Odysseus blinds him, incurring further wrath from Poseidon.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Cyclop

Griffin or Gryphon was a giant creature with the head and wings of an eagle, but the body and hindquarters of a lion. There are only a few references of the griffins in the Greek mythology. The Greek historian, Herodotus, who claimed they come from the land of the Hyperboreans. The griffins were most likely of Asiatic origin.

In his play Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus mentioned the griffins with their sharp beaks. Aeschylus says that the griffins lived around the river rolling gold alongside with the hounds of Zeus and the mounted one-eyed Arimaspians. The geographer Pausanias reported that the griffins were seen guarding their hoards of gold from the thieving one-eyed Arimaspians, their neighbours. However, there are many depictions of griffins in paintings, both in Bronze Age Crete and Greece, as well as in classical Greece. In the Minoan civilisation (Bronze Age), seals have been found, where naked woman or goddess held a griffin by the ear. This goddess was known as the Mistress of Animals, who was later identified with the Artemis, goddess of hunting and wild creatures.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Griffin

The Hecatoncheires or the Hundred-Handed were offspring of Uranus and Gaea; they were brothers named Briareus, Cottus and Gyges. They had hundred hands and fifty heads. Their gigantic size and their ugliness frightened their father, Uranus, who was ruler of the universe. Uranus threw his sons into Tartarus, the deepest region of the Underworld. This caused great pain to Gaea. When Gaea gave birth to another set of ugly, giant sons, the Cyclops were met with similar fates as their elder brothers. The Cyclopes were also imprisoned in Tartarus. Only the Titans, who were fairer in looks, escaped the fates of imprisonment. Cronus, the youngest of the Titans, overthrown his father and became supreme ruler of the universe. Gaea had hoped that Cronus would release her sons who were imprisoned in Tartarus. Cronus refused to release them, so Gaea foretold that he would meet a similar fate as his father.
War broke out between the Titans and the sons of Cronus, known as the Olympians. The Olympians were the younger gods, led by the younger brother Zeus. The Cyclops made weapons for the Olympians. The Titans and Olympians were evenly matched, until Zeus released the Hecatoncheires from Tartarus. With the help of the Hecatoncheires, Zeus and his brothers were able to throw Cronus and the other male Titans into prison. Zeus set the Hecatoncheires to watch and guard the Titans, who were imprisoned in Tartarus.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Hecatoncheires

Somewhat vampirical, this was a female monster who was thought to steal children and drink their blood. She was thought to have a woman's head and breasts, but a serpent's body. In some accounts she was one of Zeus' lovers who bore him children. Hera, in fits of jealousy, caused each child that was born to die. In despair, Lamia became a monster jealous of mothers more fortunate than herself. So she devoured their children. Female spirits which attached themselves to children in order to suck their blood were also called Lamiae.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Lamia

The Minotaur was a beast that had the body of a man and the head of a bull. Legend has it that King Minos of Crete tried to cheat Poseidon by begging for a beautiful white bull for sacrifice to the gods. However, when Minos got hold of this bull he put it in with his own herds. Very angry, Poseidon caused Minos' wife to fall in love with the bull and become its lover. The Minotaur was the result of this weird union. The Labyrinth was built in order to house the beast and each year he was fed with seven boys and seven girls who were the tribute exacted by Minos from Athens. Theseus was able to defeat the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, King Minos' daughter. She gave him a skein of thread and a sword so that he might kill the monster and then retrace his steps back through the labyrinth.

Further reading: "Open minded or twisted sexual behaviour ?"

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Minotaur

The six-headed monster that resided at the Strait of Messina. Scylla was originally a beautiful maiden who was loved by a minor sea god named Glaucus. The sorceress Circe was in love with Glaucus, but the sea god did not return her love. In a jealous rage, Circe poured one of her potion into area where Scylla normally bathed. Scylla was transformed into a monster with six long necks, with the head of ugly hounds.

Scylla's lair was on the opposite side of the strait, where a giant whirlpool, the Charybdis, bring complete destruction to any ship sailing nearby. To escape both Scylla and Charybdis was virtually impossible. If the ship sailed near Scylla, they would lose sailors, but sailing too close to Charybdis would destroy the entire ship.

However, the Argonauts did manage to pass through Scylla and Charybdis, because of the sea goddess Thetis. Her husband, Peleus was one of the Argonauts. In the Odyssey, Odysseus lost six of his men to Scylla, the first time his ship passed through the strait. A month later, Odysseus lost his entire ship and crew, when the gods send strong winds, driving his ship back to the strait. This time, Charybdis swallowed his ship. Odysseus was the only survivor.

Further reading: "Caught between Scylla and Charybdis"

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Scylla

The satyrs were woodland spirits, often depicted in arts with head and upper body of man, horns and pointy ears, and goat legs. They were also depicted with large erect phallus. They were often seen accompanying Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. They were shown in drunken revelry and orgy, dancing with Dionysus' female followers, the maenads.
Pan, the god of shepherd was a satyr, so was probably Silenus or Seilenus. Silenus was one of the loyal followers of Dionysus, who brought up the wine god.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Satyr

The Sphinx was a creature with a head and chest of a woman, body and legs of lion and wings of an eagle. The Sphinx was an offspring of Echidna and either Orthus or Typhon. The Sphinx lived on the road west of Thebes. It was custom of the Sphinx to tell the riddle to travelling heading towards Thebes. If the traveller answers the riddle correctly, the traveller would be allowed to pass her. Giving the wrong answer, the Sphinx would kill and devour the traveller.

When Creon became regent at the death of King Laius, he offered the kingdom of Thebes and his beautiful sister, Jocasta (newly widowed) in marriage. When Oedipus correctly answered the riddle, the Sphinx killed itself by jumping off the cliff. Oedipus became king, and unwittingly married his mother (Jocasta) and became father of their children.

In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx appeared to be wingless.

Further reading: "Oedipus and Narcissus"

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Sphinx

Triton was a fish-tailed sea god, the son and herald of Poseidon, king of the seas. He stilled the waves with the blow of a conch-shell trumpet. Triton was also described as the god of the giant, Libyan, salt-lake Tritonis. When the Argonauts were stranded in the desert he assisted them in finding passage from the lake back to the sea.

Trtion was depicted in Greek vase painting as fish-tailed merman, sometimes bearded, sometimes youthful. In Greek sculpture and mosaic he was often given twin fish or dolphin tails. As Poseidon's herald, he had a winged brow and conch-shell trumpet.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Triton

Typhon was a giant winged monster with a hundred heads. Typhon was an offspring of Gaea ("Earth") and Tartarus. Typhon was a gigantic winged monster that was part man and part beast. Typhon was also taller than the tallest mountain. Under Typhon's arms there was a hundred dragon-heads. Below his thighs were the massive coils of vipers. Typhon was a terribly horrifying sight and was deadly since flame would gush from his mouth.

Typhon fathered many monsters upon Echidna: Cerberus, Chimaera, Orthus, the Hydra, Nemean Lion, Sphinx, Caucasian Eagle, Crommyonian Sow and vultures. According to Hyginus, Typhon was said to be father of Scylla.

Even though the Olympians had recently won the war against the Titans, the younger gods feared to face the monsters. Zeus tried to fight Typhon, until the monster cut off Zeus' sinews from his hands and feet. This prevented Zeus from using his thunderbolts, Zeus' most deadly weapon. Zeus was helpless and could not prevent Typhon from imprisoning Zeus in a cave. After some time, Hermes, the son of Zeus, recovered the sinews and rescued his father. When the sinews were restored to Zeus, he returned to fight Typhon with his thunderbolts. Zeus killed the monster by blasting his thunderbolts at Typhon, before burying the creature under Mount Aetna (Etna) or the entire island of Sicily.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Typhon

Argus Panoptes was a watchman with a hundred eyes. Hera had set Argus to watching Io, who had been transformed into a cow. Hera wanted to keep Zeus away from Io. With a hundred eyes watching Io, Zeus had no hope of spiriting Io away without detection from Argus. Even when Argus slept, some of his eyes would continue to watch, while the rest of the eyes were closed.
Zeus decided to send his resourceful son, Hermes. Hermes was dressed as a shepherd. Hermes lulled Argus to sleep, before the god killed the watchman with his sword. Hera rewarded Argus for his service, by placing his eyes on the tail of the peacock, which was her favourite bird.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Argus

The Centaurs were a tribe of half-man and half-horse, living in Magnesia, a coastal region in Thessaly. The Centaur was depicted in arts to have a head, chest and arms of a man, while the rest of his body was that of a horse.

There were several different stories of their origin. One version says that the Centaurs were said to be descendants of Centaurus, the son of Apollo and Stilbe, thus brother of Lapithus, who became descendants of the Thessalian tribe, known as the Lapiths. A more popular version say that this Centaurus was a son of Ixion, the king of Thessaly, and the the cloud, possibly named Nephele, who was created by Zeus, made to look like Hera. In both version, Centaurus mated with the mares from Magnesia, southern Thessaly, which produced half-horse, half-man offspring. The Centaurs were also known as Hippocentaurs.

The Centaurs were known for their inability to drink alcohol. They become unruly when drunk. There were frequent clashes between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The height of conflict was reached during the wedding of Peirithoüs & Hippodameia. Peirithoüs (Peirithous) was king of the Lapiths and friend of Theseus. Two of the Centaurs were prominent at the wedding, Eurytion and Nessus; Heracles would killed them later. With the help of some of Peirithoüs' guests, they were able to drive the Centaurs out of Thessaly. Most fled to Arcadia where they encountered Heracles, during his 4th Labour.

There were two friendly Centaurs to humans, Cheiron and Pholus.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Centaur

Himera (or Chimaera) was a fire-breathing monster that lived in the mountains around Lycia. Chimaera was another monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna. Chimaera had the head and body of a lion, legs of a goat, and had a snake instead of a tail. Some images of the Chimaera showed it has a head of goat as well as that of the lion.

Iobates, king of Lycia, received a message from his son-in-law, King Proëtus (Proetus) of Tiryns, to kill Bellerophon, an exiled Corinthian prince. The gods frowned upon host who killed a guest, so Iobates decided to send Bellerophon to his death, requesting the hero to kill the monster Chimaera for him. To avoid the fire from Chimaera, Bellerophon won and tamed Pegasus, the winged steed. Bellerophon was able to kill Chimaera with his bow and arrows, at a safe distance from the monster.

Monsters of Classical Myhology - Chimera

Texts were taken and adjusted from
Timeless Myths, Washington State University and Theoi Greek Mythology

Jan 8, 2010

Euripides' Andromache - Characters and their family trees

Trojan war widow Andromache (remember that Achilles had slain Hector before receiving Paris' deadly arrow) is the main character of this twisted family drama: a captive woman who has a child with her husband's killer; the jealousy of a princess who can't give his husband a heir, a grandfather ruined by the killing of the last member of his family, a prince who claims his rights over an already wedded woman ... that's Euripides' Andromache !

The family trees behind Euripides' Andromache
The family trees behind Euripides' Andromache

The story
Once Troy had fallen Achilles' son Neoptolemus takes Hector's wife Andromache as a battle price and carries her to his homeland Phthia, where she has to live side by side with his formal wife Hermione, daughter of king and queen of Sparta Menelaus and Helen. Infertile Hermione could give no son to his husband, who later has an offspring with the Trojan prisioner.

Filled with anger and jealousy, Hermione plots the killing of Andromache's son while Neoptolemus is away in Delphi to consult the city's famed oracle. Peleus, father of Achilles and grandfather of Neoptolemus saves the kid from his bloody destiny.

Orestes, son of Clyemnestra and Mycenaen king Agamemnon arrives at the place and carries Hermione away, saying he has rights on her for their families had arranged their marriage (in order to unite the cities of Sparta and Mycenae) prior to the bonding of Hermione and Neoptolemus. As the Spartan princess was fearing for her life, she is taken by Orestes with full consent.

Hermione now has no need to worry for her Phtihan husband: Orestes had sent his people to kill him at Delphi.

The people of this story

Helen: queen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus; the human cause of the Trojan war. Son of Zeus and Leda; sister of Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux (The Dioscuri)

Menelaus: king of Sparta, brother of Agamemnon.

Orestes: son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Killed his mother to avenge the murder of his father (read Aeschylus' "The Oresteia").

Neoptolemus: son of Achilles, who helped the Greeks in their battle against Troy.

Andromache: wife of Trojan prince Hector, who was fiercely killed by Achilles in the battlefield.

Jan 4, 2010

Map of the Greek World

For the Greek people around VII or VI BC, the world was "Mediterranean": the geography of planet Earth consisted of the Mediterranean Sea, minor extensions of water related to the former and the land surrounding them.

The World according to Hecataeus of Miletus - 550 BC - The Homeric Map of The World
The World according to Hecataeus of Miletus - 550 BC

This Homeric Conception of the world was best put in paper in a map designed by Hecataeus of Miletus around 550 BC, were we can distinguish:

- The world was a huge mass of land floating in the middle of the Ocean.
- The land was divided by the Mediterranean into two big pieces: Europa in the North and Asia in the South.
- If you sailed west, you would get to the "Pillars of Heracles" (today known as "The Strait of Gibraltar").
- The Caspian Sea, the place where Jason and the Argonauts had to go in order to recover the Golden Fleece, was the furthest Eastern-point of the planet.

Below this paragraph, the best ancient-modern map of Hellas (the Ancient Greek name for ancient and modern Greece) I've found in the Internet, which will let you easily locate the places mentioned by all the post-Homeric poets such as Euripides, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and "the rest".

Classical Greek World Map
Classical Greek World Map

Laconian Sparta, Boeotian Thebes, Attican Athens, Argolid Troezen, Mycenae, Aulis, Ithaca, Troy, Marathon, Delphi ... every region and city found in classical literature.

Dec 28, 2009

Macaria, martyred for her beloved

Zeus mated with the mortal Alcmene and had a son whom they named "Heracles". Hera, wife of Zeus, became mad and thus persecuted the hero throughout his entire life ... and even after his death.

Macaria, daughter of Heracles gives her life for her family

After Heracles had died by his unwitting wife Deienira and turned into a God, his cousin Eurystheus - king of Argos and commander of his dangerous Twelve Labors - continued to persecute the family. Wherever these orphan refugees went, the evil ruler Eurystheus would order their expelle. After several years of wandering, the sons and daughters of Heracles (known as The Heracleidae or Heraclids) finally found shelter in Athens, ruled by the son of great Theseus, king Demophon.

Note 1: remember that Heracles once saved Theseus from the depths of Hell. He had been imprisoned by Hades, who magically bound them to a bench, because they had attempted to kidnap Persephone.

Note 2: Heracles had a numerous number of descendants, but the term "Heracleidae" apply particularly to the children he had with Deianira: Hyllus, Lamos, Manto, Bianor, Tlepolemus, Telephus and

Powerful Eurystheus, on his demand for their surrender being refused, attacked Athens. Finding the future of his city doomed, Demophon went to seek advice from the Oracle, which told him that the only way to defeat their enemy was to sacrifice a noble young girl in order to please Goddess Persephone. Macaria offered her life, and the ritual took place.

Eurystheus was defeated and slain. Macaria had saved Athens and his entire family.

Euripides' tragedy "The Heracleidae" (plot)

Iolaus, Heracles' old comrade, and his children, Macaria and her brothers and sisters have hidden from Eurystheus in Athens, which was ruled by King Demophon; as the first scene makes clear, their expectation is that the blood relationship of the kings with Heracles and their father's past indebtedness to Theseus, will finally provide them sanctuary. As Eurysttheus prepared to attack, an oracle told Demophon that he would win if and only if a noble woman was sacrificed to Persephone. Macaria volunteered for the sacrifice.

Further reading: Herakles: human, hero, demigod or god ?

Dec 25, 2009

Iphigenia is alive !

Do you remember the youngest daughter of king Agamemnon, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed at Aulis in order to appease the anger of Artemis and let the Greek fleet sail to Troy? We were framed! She is not resting in the kingdom of Hades; all this time she´s been living in Tauris as a priestess to the Goddess.

Iphigenia is saved by Artemis and placed in Tauris
Iphigenia is saved from her own sacrifice by the Goddess Artemis

According to Euripides´ award winning "Iphigenia in Tauris", Artemis abducted the princess before being burnt at the pyre and dropped her in that faraway citadel to become her servant. No one ever noticed the body-replacement of Iphigenia for that of a deer: the blood that gushed out of the flames was no human.

Long ago a sacred statue with the image of Artemis fell from heaven and appeared in the coast of Tauris, a city ruled by notorious King Thoas. Since that episode, the Taurian society devoted their life to the worshipping of the Goddess, sacrificing every foreigner that appeared in their land. Iphigenia, once rescued from the pyre, was commanded to lead this killing of outlanders.

The many, many stories of Agamemnon´s offsprings now finally get connected:

- Iphigenia is sacrificed in Aulis ("Iphigenia in Aulis" by Euripides)

- Agamemnon, after having conquered Troy, sails back home ("The Iliad" by Homer)

- Agamemnon arrives at Mycenae and is killed by his wife Clytemnestra, who avenges the prior killing of her daughter Iphigenia ("Agamemnon" by Aeschylus)

- Son and daughter, Orestes and Iphigenia, avenge their dad Agamemnon by killing their mother Clytemnestra ("The Libation Bearers" by Aeschylus)

- Orestes escapes the Erinyes after having comited matricide ("The Eumenides" by Aeschylus)

- Orestes is commanded by the God Apollo to sail to Tauris and rescue the sacred statue of Artemis (Euripides´ Iphigenia in Tauris)

Orestes now lands in Tauris together with his companion Pylades. Unaware of the true identity of the foreigners, Thoas´ people capture them both and readies their bodies for the sacrifice. In the exact moment when they are to be killed, brother and sister recognize each other.

Orestes and Iphigenia steal the sacred figure of Artemis and escape back home.

Oct 31, 2009

Hippolytus: the battle between Lust and Continence

The incestuous, profound, unintended and unintentional love between stepmother and stepson unleash the most tragic of all classical tragedies: Euripdes' Hippolytus.

Euripides - HippolytusDon't mess with the Gods: abide by their rules or perish.

The anger of a deity who feels dishonored by the choice made by a human; the wrath of the Goddess of Love - Aphrodite - who can't stand her impotence for not being able to subdue the chaste Hippolytus to her powers of passion and desire. The rivalry of two opposites: Virginity (Artemis) and Sex (Aphrodite), and the prevail of the latter. A world ruled by lust and desire were chastity has no place.

"Freedom is merely an illusion, a dreamlike thing, for Fate is the master of all of us. Like slaves, we must submit".

Once again, a story that reflects the poor and submissive condition of human existence: no life of your own, a life that belongs to the unpredictable and selfish will of the Gods.

The Plot

The goddess Aphrodite is much incensed because Hippolytus, bastard son of King Theseus of Trozên and the Amazon "Hippolyte", worships only pure Artemis. She resolves, therefore, to bring about his death through the very sex that he has scorned, and scorning, has thus offered insult to the mighty Aphrodite.

For some months past, Phaedra, beloved wife of Theseus, has hidden in her inmost heart a secret passion for the manly Hippolytus. Through unsatiated desire and secret shame she has wasted away until her old nurse despairs of her life. Finally, after much coaxing, the old nurse learns her secret. On pretense of making a love-philter that will cure Phaedra of her unholy love, the nurse confesses her mistress' secret to Hippolytus. The latter in anger scorns and upbraids Phaedra. Only his oath of secrecy given to the nurse, he admits, keeps him from confessing his stepmother's shame to the King as soon as His Majesty returns.

Phaedra, in her half-crazed state, scarcely heeds him. She sees honor gone and her life ruined through her old servant's mistaken kindness, for she really believes that Hippolytus means to tell the King. In despair she hangs herself. Before the dread deed, however, she has written on her tablet, sealed with a royal seal, the charge that Hippolytus has dishonored her. On the King's arrival the first thing he notes is the tablet fastened to his dead wife's wrist. Grief-stricken, he opens it believing that it will contain some final directions for the care of their children, only to be shocked by the terrible accusation against Hippolytus.

The Prince's protestations of innocence are unavailing against the King's unreasoning anger, and his oath prevents his speaking the whole truth. Theseus condemns his son to life-long exile and in addition prays to his ancestor, Poseidon, powerful god of the sea, to destroy the ravisher of his dear wife.

Hippolytus, knowing the futility of further arguments, mounts his chariot to drive along the seashore until he shall reach his father's boundaries. As he drives, a terrible monster, riding a huge wave, so frightens his spirited horses that he is dashed against the rocks and is carried back, dying, to his father's presence. While he is still conscious Artemis appears in a cloud and explains to Theseus how cruelly Aphrodite had plotted against Hippolytus. Thus both the youth and Phaedra are revealed as the innocent victims of a goddess' jealousy and their honor is vindicated.

Note: summary taken from Moonstruck

Best extracts of the play

- The nurse, having heard Phaedra's in love with his stepson, tries to comfort her mistress by reminding her that mortals are helpless to the desire of the Gods. It's impossible for a simple woman to escape the longings of a God.

Nurse: "Give up your railing. It's only insolent pride to wish to be superior to the Gods. Endure your love, the Gods have willed it so. You are sick (...)"

- When Hippolytus learns by the Nurse that his stepmother is in love with him.

Hippolytus: "Women ! (...) Why, why, Lord Zeus did put you in the world, in the light of the sun? If you were so determined to breed the race of man, the source of it should not be women. (...) how great a curse is woman (...) beauty heaped on vileness (...) I'll hate you women, and hate you and hate you, and never have enough hating."

- The moment Theseus arrives home and curses his son for having murdered Phaedra.

Theseus: "Citizens, Hippolytus has dared to rape my wife. He has dishonored God's holy sunlight. Father Poseidon (...) I pray, kill my son (...) I banish him from this land's boundaries. So fate shall strike him, one way or the other, either Poseidon will respect my curse, and send him dead into the House of Hades, or exiled from this land (...)".

- When Artemis appears to Theseus and the hole truth is revealed.

Artemis: "I call on the noble king [Theseus] to hear me ! It is Artemis, child of Leto. Miserable man (...) you have murdered your son! (...) I have come here for this - to show you that your son's heart was always just, so just that for his good name he endured to die. I will show you, too, the frenzied love that seized your wife, or I may call it, a noble innocence. For that most hated Goddess [Aphrodite], hated by all of us whose joy is virginity, drove her with love's sharp prickings to desire your son. She tried to overcome her love with the mind's power, but at last against her will, she fell by the nurse's stratagems (...) who told your son under oath her mistress loved him (...) But he, just man, did not fall in with her counsels, and even when reviled by you refused to break the oath he had pledged. But your wife fearing lest she be proved the sinner wrote a letter, a letter full of lies, and so she killed your son by treachery (...)".

- The closing dialogue between the Goddess Artemis, father (Theseus) and son (Hippolytus): with his last breath, a dying son forgives his murderous father for having killed him.

Aphrodite:"You have sinned indeed, but you may win pardon. For it was Cypris [Aphrodite] who managed the things this way to gratify her anger against Hippolytus" (...)".

Hippolytus: "O father, this is sorrow for you indeed".

Theseus: "I, too, am dead now. I have no more joy in life".

Hippolytus: "I sorrow for you in this more than myself" (...) The darkness is upon my eyes already. Father, lay hold on me and lift me up". (...)

Theseus: "And so you leave me, my hand stained with murder."

Hippolytus: "No, for I free you from all guilt in this".

As I tried to introduce in the opening, I find Euripides' Hippolytus to be the most tragic and emotionally devastating of classical poems. Thus, I encourage you to stop watching those brain-washing soap operas that appear on TV and start reading this writer's awesome play!

> Click here to read the entire play

Oct 13, 2009

Plato's Symposium - Aristophanes's speech

What is the nature of love? What purpose does love have?

In trying to find an answer to this inquiry, Plato writes his philosophical Symposium, a book comprising "a story within a story, within a story" that deals with the topics of knowledge and love. According to the play, a group of sophisticated and enlightened people are invited to a meeting in order to debate on these two matters.

Among these guests is our master comedian Aristophanes, who tries to explain why people in love say they feel "whole" when they have found their love partner.

These are more or less the ideas on love that Plato puts in his mouth:

Plato's Symposium - Aristophanes's speech - On Love

In primal times people were globular spheres who wheeled around like clowns doing cartwheels. There were three sexes: the all male, the all female, and the "androgynous," who was half man, half woman. The creatures tried to scale the heights of heaven and planned to set upon the gods. Zeus thought about just blasting them to death with thunderbolts, but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half.

After chopping the people in half, Zeus turned half their faces around and pulled the skin tight and stitched it up to form the belly button. Ever since that time, people run around saying they are looking for their other half because they are really trying to recover their primal nature.

Oct 11, 2009

Aristophanes - The Complete Plays

After having analyzed during the last months a bunch of plays written by the comedian Aristophanes, I guess now it's a good time to make a little review of all his masterpieces.

Aristophanes - Theater of Dionysus
Greek's Theater of Dionysus, in Athens

Of the many comedies produced by this Greek author, only eleven of them have survived and reached our modern times in a complete state: Acharnians, Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Peace, Birds, Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria Festival, Frogs, A Parliament of Women and Plutus (Wealth). Among all these poems, I've already shared with you the three ones I found most captivating: The Acharnians, Clouds and Lysistrata.

How would I describe his plays ?
I if had the possibility to gather all Aristophanes's plays in a single and illustrating label I wouldn't hesitate to choose "ABSURD" or any of its equivalents: ridiculous, laughable, risible, idiotic, stupid, foolish, silly, insane, unreasonable, irrational, illogical, incongruous, senseless, crazy. Aristhopnahes was the first known artist to make Comedy and Entertaining a serious business ... and he did it in a outstanding way.

What drew most of my attention ?
The vast theatrical mastery the audience ought to have in order to get a complete understanding of his plays, or even to just "follow" them. You would miss half of them shouldn't you have first read or heard about the other many stories and authors he constantly parodies and quotes: the great Homer, Socrates, Aesop ... or even his arch-rivals Sophocles, Euripides or Aeschylus and their many, many performed plays.

Why read Aristophanes ?
The easiest and most direct response would be "You can't travel the road of Classical Mythology without paying a visit to Aristophanes". Apart from this "canned answer", my personal reply would be "the much he makes you think !"; disguised in foolish, entertaining and perspicacious dialogues, deep topics reach the surface. Aristophnes makes his audience laugh and enjoy the moment, and leaves them with a great number of profound things in which to turn their minds to.

And what about the rest of the poems ?
Can't let you empty handed; here is a little summary of 4 of his other plays:

- Peace: Trygaeus, sick of war (27 years have passed since the beginning of The Peloponnesian War), flies to Olympus on a gigantic beetle - parodying Bellerophon's aerial journey on Pegasus - to ask Zeus what he is doing about the conflict. But Zeus has washed his hands of humanity and is allowing War (who has trapped Peace inside a cave) to have free rein. Finally, Peace is rescued and brought back in triumph to Earth.

- Birds: two middle-aged Athenians, fed up with the world they live in, decide to go in search for a better one. Under the direction of two pet birds, they seek advice from Tereus, who used to be human but is now a hoopoe: why not join the birds and create a new and invincible empire ? An aerial city (later baptized "Cloudcuckooland") placed between the Earth and the high Sky, where Gods and humans alike would have to pay tributes to them.
No doubt, this is the most absurd of all Aristophanes's plays !

- Frogs: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are all dead, and there are no more good poets or good theater; so Dionysus, patron of the stage, decides to go down to Hades and bring back the best of the three. An artistic contest begins between the play writers; Aeschylus gets the first prize, and accompanies Dionysus back to the mortal world.

- Plutus (Wealth): Zeus once blinded Plutus so that he couldn't tell the difference between god and bad people (being rich has nothing to do with being good). Chremyslus, an Athenian citizen, decides to take him to Aesclepius, god of healing, to get his sight back. On their way they come across Poverty who tells them they are making a big mistake: "without the fear of poverty, mortals would have no motive to make an effort". Plutus then gets his sight back.