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Category Archives: Mythology

Achilles (The Iliad)
Known From: The Iliad “If I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall
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The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios
By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek myth, Helios was a deity who was
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The Rape of a Goddess
by Mary E. Naples, M.A. Who were Demeter and Persephone and why did their myth resonate so strongly with women
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The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity
By Van Bryan The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one
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Female Monsters of the Odyssey
By Julia Huse, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Limited Of the monsters and mythological creatures Odysseus encounters during his long voyage
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The Realm of Poseidon: A Mythical Voyage Around the Aegean
By Peter Marshall, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins “Poseidon the great god I begin to sing, he who moves the earth
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Ajax: Clean out your soul
By Ben Potter Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he
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Jason: Sniveling Worm or Unfortunate Bloke?
By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard It’s a myth famed in the ancient greek world, filled with monsters, superheroes and
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Sophocles Antigone: One Woman Against the State
by Anya Leonard “My nature is to join in love, not hate” – ‘Antigone’ in Sophocles Antigone. Maybe it’s no surprise
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The Unlucky Seven Against Thebes
Seven warriors killing seven other soldiers in front of seven gates. You’d think that story would forever condemn the number
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Achilles (The Iliad)

by October 24, 2018

© Dan Lim, 2006 p: 416-863-5115Known From: The Iliad

“If I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me”
-Achilles, From The Iliad
The hero of The Iliad, Achilles is the central character and fiercest warrior in Homer’s epic. He is portrayed as being hot-headed, ferocious, and often filled with grief. Achilles as the mournful warrior is a theme that Homer recounts several times during the course of The Iliad. Combining the nature of a grieving Achilles with his supposed immorality and unrelenting rage on the battlefield makes for a complex and deeply human Greek hero.
Achilles was supposedly the son of the water goddess, Thetis, and the mortal king Peleus. Achilles’ mother is a recurring character in The Iliad and she attempts to aid her son in numerous ways. While Homer makes no reference to Achilles as an immortal; other variants of the stories, written by the Roman poet Statius, describe how Thetis held her infant son by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx to grant him everlasting life.
As a young man Achilles was reared by the centaur Chiron, who was said to be kind, wise, and knowledgeable in the ways of medicine. While a disciple of Chiron, Achilles fed on the innards of lions and wild swines. In The Imagines, a work written by the Greek poet Philostratus of Athens, Chiron is said to have told the young Achilles:
“For although you have been taught by me thus gently the art of horsemanship, and are suited to such a horse as I, some day you shall ride on Xanthus and Balius; and you shall take many cities and slay many men.”
The prophecy would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad. 
Xanthus and Balius were the names of the two horses that would drive Achilles’ chariot into battle. This prediction by Achilles’ teacher would be fulfilled within the pages of The Iliad.
Click the link to read more about Achilles
-The Glory and the Tragedy of Achilles

The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios

by October 18, 2018

By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
Painting of the Greek sun god

‘Helios on His Chariot’ (Detail) by Hans Adam Weissenkircher (17th century).

An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek myth, Helios was a deity who was important, but not always recognized for his powers. Until his role was usurped by a newer god, Helios was the deity of the life-giving, season-changing sun. He appeared in artwork riding his horse-drawn chariot across the sky and was a firsthand witness to several major events in the lives of other gods and goddesses, but Helios generally seemed to pass along in the background, seeing everything going on both on earth and in the heavens as he made sure to follow his daily routine.
Titans, Nymphs, Kings, and Oceanids: Helios’ Extensive Family
Helios’ parents were the Titans Hyperion, god of light, and Theia, goddess of sight. His sisters were Selene (the Moon) and Eos (Dawn). He was born/created in what is called the Golden Age of Greek Mythology and was responsible for bringing light to the world as the god of the sun. That role would gradually be usurped.
The Greek god of sun at noon

‘Helios as Personification of Midday’ (1765) by Anton Raphael Mengs.

His lovers include the Oceanids Perseis (whom some sources call his wife) and Clymene as well as the nymphs Crete and Rhodes.
His daughters with Persis include the famed sorceresses Circe, a lover to Odysseus, and Pasiphae, King Minos of Crete’s wife. His two sons with Perseis were King Aietes (Aeete) of Kolchis (Colchis) and King Perses of Persia.
Phaethon was his son born from Helios’ relation with Clymene and he had three (or five) daughters with her, known collectively as the Heliades.
Painting of the four seasons

‘Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons’ (1635) by Nicola Poussin.

With Rhode, Helios had seven sons, the Heliadae, and a daughter named Electryone. These sons were said to have been smarter and stronger than any other men and soon became the rulers of Rhodes. Three of the main cities, Ialysos, Cameiros, and Lindos, are said to be named for three of his sons.
Two of his nymph daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, were in charge of overseeing his cattle on Thrinacia.
Helios in Art – How Did the Ancients Depict the Greek Sun God?
Helios appeared in all kinds of Greek art. He’s generally depicted as a young man wearing a crown of the sun’s rays, or with bright, curly hair. His piercing eyes reflect the legends of his all-seeing gaze and he’s clothed in a garment fit for a god. A simpler Greek symbol for Helios is a large haloed eye.
The poet who authored the 31st Homeric Hymn presents a beautiful description of the sun deity’s appearance in artwork:
“As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him.”
Sculpture of the Greek Sun god

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Usually the sun god is shown riding his golden chariot at the edge or in the background of someone else’s scene. His chariot is drawn by four winged horses, or sometimes dragons, and he is sometimes accompanied by one or both of his sisters.
His image has been identified in several examples of Greek pottery dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. For example, Helios is depicted on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC, in which boys symbolizing the stars fall towards the ocean as he approaches. He’s also represented in some Heracles’ scenes on 6th century BC black-figure and 5th century BC red-figure pottery.
Pottery of the Greek sun god

Helios on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC.

The most famous example of Helios in art, however, was the Colossus of Rhodes. This massive standing figure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was constructed between 304 and 280 BC, but toppled over during an earthquake in either 228 or 226 BC. Coins from Rhodes also presented their patron deity for centuries.
Some notable historic figures also took on the likeness of the Greek sun god in their portraits. Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors Vespasian and Nero all desired to be seen as incarnations of a sun god.
Bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great as Helios. Marble, Roman copy after a Hellenistic original from 3rd–2nd century BC.

His Daily Journey Across the Sky
The most important ancient Greek myth of Helios is his daily journey. The ancient Greeks believed that there was a golden chariot of the sun that was so bright that human eyes could not bear to gaze upon it. For them, that chariot was driven from the east (Ethiopia) to the west (Hesperides) across the sky every day by the god Helios.
The journey was difficult and it was believed that Helios was a skilled charioteer to be able to not fly too close or distant from the earth. Helios’ daily trip across the sky began as his sister Eos (as dawn) threw open the gates of his beautiful eastern palace. He set off with his four winged horses (Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois, and Phlegon). The long travel had a steep ascent, peaked around mid-day, and then steeply descended towards his western palace, where his nephew, Hesperus (evening) awaited him.
Painting of the Gods

Three paintings showing three deities of Greek mythology as personifications of the times of the day. From left to right: Helios (or sun god Apollo) personifying Day, Hesperus embodying Evening, and Selene (or Diana, Luna) personifying Night or the Moon.

To return to the eastern palace, Helios was believed to have sailed under the world via the northerly stream of the realm of Oceanus with his horses and chariot in a golden boat (or large cup/goblet, or bed) created by the master smith and deity, Hephaestus. While Helios was hidden in Oceanus, Selene, the moon goddess, took her turn to cross the sky.
Minor Roles for Helios in Greek Myths
Another well-known myth involving Helios was when his son almost destroyed the earth. A popular version of the Greek myth of Phaethon says that the young man wanted proof that the sun was his father, so he went east to test the deity and ask him for a gift. Helios agreed to give his son whatever the youth wanted, but was distressed to discover Phaethon wanted to take a turn driving the golden sun chariot across the sky. He reluctantly consented and that favor turned into a disaster.
Phaethon could not control the winged horses and spun out of control, hurtling too far, then far too close, to the earth. Some of the world froze and other parts were set on fire as Phaethon struggled to control the chariot. But it was too much for him and as the gods watched the chaos unfold it was decided that something must be done before the earth was destroyed.
Picture depicting Phaeton's fall

‘The Fall of Phaeton’ (1531-1535) by Giovanni Bernardi.

Zeus saw no other option than to strike Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. The gods had to beg Helios to return to his work following the death of his son, but the sun god eventually agreed. And Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, were in such despair due to their brother’s death that their tears turned into amber and they became poplar trees.
Helios also played a minor role in many Greek myths. For example, his power to see everything on earth and in the heavens made him an eyewitness to the abduction of Persephone by Hades and the affair between Aphrodite and Ares.
Painting of Helios the Greek God

Helios (as Sol) shows the other gods Venus and Mars (Aphrodite and Ares), Vulcan (Hephaestus) stands at the front of the painting. (1540) by Maarten van Heemskerck.

He sometimes offered his assistance to other characters in Greek myth, such as when he allowed his granddaughter Medea to flee on his chariot after she murdered her children. He also lent his golden ship/cup to Heracles when the Greek hero had to cross Oceanus and capture the cattle of Geryon. Helios rescued his friend Hephaestus from the battlefield during the Gigantomachy and restored Orion’s eyesight after he was blinded by Oenipion as well. The earth mother goddess, Gaia, also sought his aid in warming and drying her when the land had been frozen by the remains of Typhon.
But Helios also showed his vengeful side when he appeared in the epic Greek tale, the Odyssey. After Odysseus’ men fed upon Helios’ sacred cattle he was so angered he had Zeus strike Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt – Odysseus was the only survivor of the attack.
The Cult of Helios
In Classical Greece, Helios was openly worshipped in Rhodes, where he was considered their patron deity since at least the early 5th century BC. Legends said that Helios was the first to see the island emerge from the waters and claimed it as his own. The island’s name came from Helios’ nymph lover, Rhodos. Every five years the island held PanHellenic games called the Halieia and a chariot and four horses were thrown into the sea as an offering to Helios.
While he was worshiped on Rhodes, it seems that Helios was not a major cult deity in the rest of ancient Greece. Temples of worship have not been mentioned to any extent, perhaps due to a belief that ‘barbarians’ built temples of worship to the sun. Nonetheless, his name was invoked in serious oaths and Plato wrote that Socrates and others would greet and pray to the sun every day.
Illustration of the Colossus of Rhodes

‘The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor’ (1886) painting by Ferdinand Knab.

Helios vs Apollo and Sol – Who was the Real Sun God?
The Greek Titans fell and the Olympians arose. Helios was not punished after the Titanomachy, but ancient Greeks pushed his role as the sun god towards someone else – Apollo.
It seems that the radiant and pure god Apollo began to gradually take over the role of sun god beginning around the 5th century BC. By the Hellenistic period the transition was almost complete. Apollo and Helios had become almost synonymous.
The Romans transformed Helios/Apollo into their sun god, Sol, and decided it was time for the deity to take a more important cult role. The Circus Maximus of Rome even had a temple dedicated to Sol and Luna (the Moon) from the 3rd century BC.

The Rape of a Goddess

by July 27, 2018

by Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Who were Demeter and Persephone and why did their myth resonate so strongly with women of ancient Greece? The story of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld, has inspired many. And while there are twenty-two variations of the myth, it is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (hereafter called the Hymn), composed between 650-550 BCE, that is believed to be one of the oldest.
However, the episode that leads up to the narrative found in the Hymn is as important as their story itself, as it sets the tone straight away. It starts with Zeus, lord of the gods, who rapes his sister Demeter, and the product of that rape is Persephone. They never married. Indeed, Zeus would have been the husband to hundreds if he married everyone he raped.
The famous Hymn then begins with the reciting of Zeus’ agreement with Hades in regards to Persephone. To be sure, his being an absentee father did not stop Zeus from arranging the marriage of his daughter – unbeknownst to either her or her mother – to his brother—Hades, the lord of the underworld.
Rape of a Goddess

Sculpture by Bernini depicting the Rape of Persephone

As a result, one day while Persephone was out picking flowers with her friends, the earth cleaved open and Hades, on a horse drawn chariot, charged out violently, snatching Persephone to be his wife for all eternity in the underworld. Persephone shrieks at the violence of the attack, alerting Demeter to her peril.
Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of Persephone. No one, god nor mortal, has the courage to tell her what became of her daughter. Finally, through information gleaned by the pre-Olympian goddess Hecate, Demeter is informed of Persephone’s rape.
Upon discovering that Zeus made the perfidious bargain with Hades, Demeter withdraws from her residence on Mount Olympus, and instead makes her home in an agrarian community populated by mortals. After many trials and tribulations there, a grand temple is built in Demeter’s honor with attendant rites to conciliate her spirit. But these honors are not enough to appease the grieving goddess.
It is at this point in the story that Demeter realizes her full strength. As a means of regaining her daughter from Hades, she exploits her power of fertility and stops the seasons, turning the earth into a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds whither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter will not relent until Persephone is released.
Finally, Zeus intercedes on Demeter’s behalf and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Ever obedient to Zeus, Hades adheres to his instruction but not until he lures Persephone into consuming a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year.
The mother and daughter goddesses

Demeter and Persephone reunite

So how did this parable of the kidnapped bride ring true for women living in ancient Greece?
Living under their husbands’ patriarchal thumbs, women were accustomed to being kept out of the loop regarding the matrimony of their daughters, and as such, it was not unusual for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either his wife or daughter.
As a girl was often torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior, abduction can be seen as the equivalent of rape. After all, men were taking young girls to be their wives, that is to say, the begetters of their sons. Indeed, some military campaigns were undertaken for the express purpose of rape; many Ionians and Pelasgians (early Greeks) were said to have gotten their wives in that manner.
Furthermore, in patriarchal ancient Greece, marriage was virilocal. In other words, the young girls—most of whom were sixteen years of age or younger—were forced to reside in their new husband’s family home, which could be a great distance from their original home. This meant having contact with their own family members after their marriage was a rare occurrence.
Consequently, Demeter’s sense of powerlessness against the abduction, and the suffering that ensued at the loss of her daughter, could resonate for most women of ancient Greece.
Mother grieving for daughter

Demeter Mourning Persephone

Additionally, although males are present in the account, it is a woman’s story. All the major roles are played by females, and the areas of concern: marriage, agriculture and sacrifice are indubitably in the feminine domain. To be sure, the dark bargain made by the male deities is a misbegotten one, as the union produces no child and nearly brings an end to the life of the planet. Indeed, although their actions drive the events, Zeus and Hades are remote shadows, whose dark force propels the dissonance felt by mother and daughter.
At its most fundamental level the Hymn is a story about a mother’s grief at the loss of her beloved daughter. Told from the perspective of the mother; it is more Demeter’s story than Persephone’s. At once powerless and inconsolable, Demeter appears more mortal than divine. Suffering profoundly due to the actions of males, Demeter is initially impotent to set things right. It is this sense of helplessness that sets off her sorrow at the loss of Persephone, mirroring the anguish that must have been felt by mortal mothers who lost their daughters to marriage each day.
Although both are parents to Persephone, Demeter’s bereavement is in marked contrast to that of Zeus, who had initiated her abduction in the first place. Bargaining with the lord of the underworld, who most would view as an agent of death; Zeus is indifferent to his daughter’s banishment into the land of the dead. In other words, he is disinterested in his daughter’s fate. Though immortal, Persephone is spirited away from the living cosmos and is compelled to live in the realm of the underworld for eternity.
Indeed, is Persephone’s marriage not a sort of death? Seen as a transition, the marriage of a maiden was viewed by many as a symbolic form of death.
But it is Demeter who does something never seen before in Greek mythology – she dares to defy the will of Zeus. Moreover, not only does she live to tell the tale but she very nearly wins the battle. After all, for the majority of the year Persephone lives with her mother in the light of her mother’s earthly domain. Though life can never return to the way it was before the abduction, most mortal women could envy Demeter’s achievement. In this way, the Hymn was liberating for ancient women, an example of a mother’s triumph over all else.

The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by July 20, 2018

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. Only one year later, his father would be killed in World War I. Camus was raised by his mother in extreme poverty. At the age of 25, Camus traveled to France where he would develop into a highly successful author and existential philosopher. He was involved with the French resistance during the Occupation of Paris during World War II. Editing and writing many underground newspapers during this time, Camus would attempt to undermine the Nazi control of Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, only to die tragically in a car crash three years later.
Photo of Albert Camus

Albert Camus

In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a corner stone on which to build his unique school of existential thought. Following some of the teachings of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Camus’ philosophy would later become known as Absurdism. Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
“The Absurd” is the feeling that Camus describes when we are forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of our existence. It is the uneasy realization that all purpose we may believe we have does not exist out there in the universe, but only in our own hearts and minds. And so life is an endless struggle to perform tasks that are essentially meaningless; we are born into this world, we fight vainly for understanding, and we are eventually sealed away by death.
It is not hard to see how Camus would find inspiration for this thinking from the myth of Sisyphus. The unfortunate mortal is unduly bound to his boulder. He will suffer for all eternity, straining all the while to perform a task that serves no purpose and inevitably must be repeated. It is this realization that would prompt a human being to tackle what Albert Camus considers the most important philosophical question. He poses this fundamental problem, rather bluntly, within the first few lines of his essay…
“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” -Albert Camus (The Myth Of Sisyphus)
Photo of the philosopher Camus

Albert Camus

It is important to remember that Camus is not necessarily advocating suicide, but he does admit to consider it, at least partially, to be justified when faced with the absurdity of life. Camus writes that any healthy man is capable of considering the possibility of suicide, even if he never acts on it. And much like Hamlet when he muses “to be or not to be…”, Albert Camus makes an eloquent consideration for the prospects of taking ones own life. Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words…
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self reflection that we are happiest. By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
Shakespeare quote

To be or not to be…

To accentuate this point, Camus retells the horrors of Oedipus. A man who tried to outrun fate, he inadvertently falls prey to it. It is only near his final hours, when he is blind and broken, does he cry out “…all is well”. Oedipus has accepted his condition, accepted his actions as his own. And he is free. Camus points to this as the recipe for victory for the absurd hero. He writes… “Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism”.
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair. It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say ‘All is well’…

Female Monsters of the Odyssey

by July 10, 2018

By Julia Huse, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Limited
Of the monsters and mythological creatures Odysseus encounters during his long voyage from Troy to Ithaca, among the fiercest are female. Three of these are Circe, the Sirens and Calypso, who all prove to be difficult and terrifying obstacles to Odysseus’ journey home.
The Witch Circe

The witch Circe poisons Odysseus’ men, Alessandro Allori, 1580

After escaping the island of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, Odysseus and his crew stumbleupon Aeaea and the home of Circe, who is referred to as both a witch and a nymph. She has a vast knowledge of potions and herbs, which Odysseus and his crew experience first hand. Odysseus and half his crew stay behind with the ships while the others go in search of Aeaea to see what people live there. The search party comes across the home of Circe, which is described as a large house in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest. All around the house are lions and wolves, which at first frighten the crew… until they notice how docile the beasts are. It is later found out that these are the previously drugged victims of Circe and her potions. In her house Circe welcomes Odysseus’ crew as guests, feeding them a meal of cheese and honey which she has drugged, turning the crew into pigs.
All but one crewmember is changed into a pig and he manages to escape to warn Odysseus and the other half of the crew what has happened. Odysseus ventures to Circe’s house to save his men, but is stopped along the way by the god Hermes, who was sent by Athena. Hermes tells Odysseus of an herb called moly that will protect him from the potions of Circe. Immune to her potions, Odysseus acts as if he is going to attack her. Afterwards, she tries to coax Odysseus into bed with her, which he avoids, due to Hermes’ advice. Having done all this, Odysseus convinces Circe to turn his crew back into humans and free them.
The Sirens
The Sirens in the Odyssey

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper

Odysseus also encounters the famous sirens during his wanderings. Typically in Greek depictions, the sirens they are half-woman half-bird creatures that perch on the rocks by the sea and sing beautiful songs that lure men who, refusing to leave, die of starvation.
In the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens and tells him to plug his and his crew’s ears with beeswax in order to block their sweet songs from entering their ears. Being curious about the songs the Sirens sing, Odysseus only plugs his crew’s ears with beeswax and then has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, instructing them not to untie him… no matter how much he begs for it. Odysseus hears the song and begs and pleads that his crew release him, but his faithful crew only tighten the ropes more, binding him to the mast.
It is then revealed that the reason the songs allure and entice men is because they sing of past and future truths. They sing to Odysseus about his past endeavors, such as the glory and suffering he endured on the battlefields of Troy, and his future actions and what he will achieve… and they falsely promise that their hearers will live to tell these truths to others. Odysseus, of course, achieves this and this is how we are able to get this account from him.
The Nymph Calypso
The Greek monster Calypso

Calypso by Henri Lehmann (1869)

At the end of his wanderings Odysseus washes up alone on the island Ogygia, the omphalos, meaning navel or center, of the sea, and also the home of the nymph Calypso. Homer describes Calypso as the daughter of the Titan Atlas, who holds up the pillars of the sky and the sea. In Homer’s epic, Calypso keeps Odysseus on her island for seven years, accounting for a large part of his journey home. Calypso desires to make Odysseus her immortal husband and enchants him with her singing as she weaves on her loom. Odysseus performs all the duties of a husband for Calypso, including sleeping with her.
Even under Calypso’s spell Odysseus desires a different life. The promise of immortality does not sway him from missing his wife Penelope. Odysseus, a man, does not desire the life of a god; he much prefers the life of a mortal, even with all its hardships that are so clearly lacking on Calypso’s island. Noticing that Odysseus wants to leave the island, Athena asks Zeus to order Odysseus’ release. Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to release Odysseus because it is not his fate that he should remain on the island forever anyways. Calypso eventually, and stubbornly, agrees to free Odysseus and sends him on his way with wine, bread and materials for a raft.
Beguiling Women of Ancient Greece
Beguiling women in Ancient Greek mythology

Telemachus and the Nymphs of Calypso MET DP169393

These women, although not necessarily terrifying in their looks, are certainly terrifying in their abilities to enchant mortal men. With much help Odysseus is able to resist or break free from these enchantments. Even the seemingly least threatening woman of the three, Calypso, manages to keep Odysseus detained for seven years, proving to be one of the greatest obstacles to his journey.
Clearly the women are seen as enchanters and deceivers of men, distracting them from their intended course or purpose… and this reflects a feeling found in Ancient Greece that women were deceitful creatures who could not control their sexual desires and sought to entrap men. This becomes especially clear when compared to male monsters, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus, who does not have the enchanting and deceiving nature of these woman. Odysseus immediately sees through his deceit and is able to win against Polyphemus with his own trickery. Whereas Odysseus can detect this deception on his own, when it comes to women monsters and goddesses, he needs the help of the gods and others to warn him and help him break free.

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece

by June 5, 2018

he Lemnians by William Russell Flint. Abandoned by their husbands in favor of slave girls captured in nearby Thrace, the women of Lemnos responded by slaughtering first their husbands then all the men on the island. ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0 )

We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.
The Ladies of Lemnos
Jason and company were sailing on the Argo when they washed up on the shores of the Greek island of Lemnos at a time when that isle was in the grip of a harrowing problem. Aphrodite had decided to curse the women of Lemnos for neglecting her shrines. In punishment, the ladies were made to smell particularly foul. As a result, the men of Lemnos decided to repudiate their wives in favor of pretty and relatively odor-free slave-girls imported from Thrace. In revenge, the Lemnian women wrought havoc, killing every man they could get their hands on—not only those who’d broken their vows, but any and every male, presumably children too.

Portrait of Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien de Saint-Gelais ( Public Domain )

he only woman to flout this convention was the queen of Lemnos, Hypsipyle, who felt bad for her old father, King Thoas. She entombed him in a hollow chest and set him out to sea, sort of like a reverse Moses, so he could hopefully wash up to safety somewhere else. In the meantime, the Lemnian women became farmers and warriors, assuming men’s traditional roles, but cast a wary eye on the sea in case the people of Thrace sailed over to avenge their captured women.
Hypsiplye saves her father

Hypsipyle saves her father Thoas by Français ( Public Domain )

The Heroes Arrive
Instead of the feared Thracians’ arrival, the Argo docked, and Hypsipyle met the Greek heroes on the beach. To make sure the newcomers didn’t suddenly decide to attack, she proposed inviting them to a feast. At one point, Hypsipyle’s wise old nanny advised that the Lemnian women, in case the Thracians did eventually decide to pursue vengeance, get themselves some new warriors on the island—the Argonauts! These proven soldiers could father their future children and keep the people of Lemnos safe.
When Hypsipyle had to explain why every lady on Lemnos was single, she lied that the Lemnian women forced their guys out once they took up with the Thracians. Jason was quite taken with Hypsipyle, and Aphrodite made him fall for her pretty hard; soon, they were shacking up together. Within time, every man on the Argo but Heracles had found a lady love on Lemnos, and their journey—to recover the Golden Fleece—was ever-more delayed. They kept finding reasons to avoid sailing on and leaving their new paramours behind…
Jason and the Argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts by Lorenzo Costa ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

More Divine Intervention
That is, until finally Heracles got up the courage to yell at them. He was the only Argonaut who had not got caught up in the lovefest on Lemnos, as he had remained on the Argo lamenting the loss of his adopted son, Hylas. Heracles exclaimed scornfully that they wouldn’t win glory by bedding strange women and the gods wouldn’t drop the fleece, object of their quests, in their laps. Jason and his cohort were thus shamed into leaving. Hypsipyle started crying, but said Jason could come back to her once he got the Golden Fleece if he so desired. If he never returned and she discovered she was pregnant in the meantime, she requested that he tell her what to do with the baby. Jason replied that, if she was pregnant and the baby was a boy, to send the child to his hometown of Iolcus, so that the offspring could care for Jason’s parents, if they were still alive.
Ovid’s Letters
In Ovid’s Heroides—reconstructed love letters from the women of mythology to the men who’d done them wrong—Hypsipyle remonstrated with Jason for never returning to her. Why, she asked, did she have to hear of his exploits through the grapevine rather than from Jason himself? And Jason had slept with Medea, a “barbarian poisoner,” rather than marry Hypsipyle, a good Greek girl? Hypsipyle cried, “Alas! where is the faith that was promised me? Where the bonds of wedlock, and the marriage torch, more fit to set ablaze my funeral pile?” She declared herself better than Medea, who had abandoned her family; in fact, Hypsipyle had saved her own dad. After all, Jason had stayed with her for two whole summers; she had welcomed him into her home and into her heart and bed; and that was all she got? He told her he’d come back eventually…but he never delivered.
Medea with Jason

Jason and Medea by Charles-Andre van Loo. Medea by some reports killed two of the children born with Jason when he left her for another ( Public Domain )

Jason’s Lemnos Legacy
The only good thing that came from sleeping with treacherous Jason was somewhat of a surprise. Hysipyle gave birth to twins; as Hypsipyle sniped, “The ways of deceit they know not; for the rest, they are like their father.” She cursed Medea and Jason—and that turned out great for those two, right? The resultant twins were Euneus and his brother, whose name is variously given as Nebrophonus or Deiphilus or Thoas. Euneus became king of Lemnos and popped up in Homer’s Iliad as the generous ruler of Lemnos who gave the Greeks some fine wine. He also ransomed one of Priam’s sons from Achilles with a mixing bowl for wine.
Queen Hypsipyle’s Fall
Hypsipyle was eventually sold into slavery after the Lemnian women discovered she’d spared her own father’s life. She became a nurse to the baby son of Lycus, king of Nemea. An oracle had stated that the child (alternately named Opheltes or Archemorus) should never be put down on the ground until he could toddle. But seven heroes—the guys who eventually attacked Thebes—approached and needed water when Hypsipyle and the infant prince were outside; afraid to inadvertently fulfill the prophecy, Hypsipyle put the baby in a bed of parsley (technically not the ground) near a spring. But a dragon or snake popped its head out of the water and gulped the baby down. The heroes saved Hypsipyle from being killed in punishment by Lycus.
By Carly Silver, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins