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Category Archives: Mythology

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Aeolus: Keeper of the Winds

by February 19, 2020

Written by Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In Greek mythology the name Aeolus pops up in reference to three different characters: Aeolus, the son of Hippotes, and keeper of the winds; Aeolus, the half-human son of Poseidon; and Aeolus, the son of Hellen (not the Helen of the Trojan War, but a mortal ruler who is the legendary ancestor of the “Hellenic” people) and a nymph Orseis, who’s wife gave birth to a daughter, Arnes, who is said to have given birth herself to the Aeolus of Poseidon.
While the Aeolus of the Odyssey is clearly the god of the winds, later Roman writers such as Ovid conflate the Aeolus’ together. It’s all very confusing, but it wouldn’t be Greek mythology if it weren’t!
Here, we’re going to focus on Aeolus, the keeper of the winds, as he appears most prominent in myths of Odysseus and the larger Greek mythological universe. Aeolus, or Aiolos, was said to reside on the floating island of Aiolia/Aeolia.
In geographic terms, Aeolus is an area in the west and northwestern region of present day Turkey, along the coast, including the offshore islands. Instead of a specific island, the Aeolic region is one of shared cultural and linguistic traits. The island of Aeolia itself, where Aeolus was said to reside, has not been identified and itself is mythological.
Juno and Aeolus

Juno asking Aeolus to release the winds, by François Boucher, 1769, Kimbell Art Museum.

The power of Aeolus rested in his control and desires of the winds. According to myth, Kronion or Zeus had made Aeolus ‘warden’ of the winds, so that at his pleasure he could order them to rise or fall or shift, whatever suited him.
He kept the violent storm winds locked away inside a cavern on the island, only releasing them upon order of one of the greatest gods. Aeolus knew of their power and knew he held the potential to wreak havoc on the world.
Appearance in the Odyssey
In the Odyssey, book 10, Odysseus describes the island as “a floating one,” and with a “wall of bronze, unbreakable, and rock[s rising] sheer above it.” Odysseus claims that Aeolus has 12 children living in his palace, six daughters and six sons, all paired off to one another.
“Then to the Aeolian isle we came, where dwelt Aeolus, son of Hippotas, dear to the immortal gods, in a floating island, and all around it is a wall of unbreakable bronze, and the cliff runs up sheer.”
According to the epic, Aeolus welcomed Odysseus and his men for a month, offering hospitality and encouraging Odysseus to relay the story of Ilium and the Argives. When it was time for Odysseus and his men to begin on their way again, Odysseus asked for help from the god of the winds, with Aeolus granting Odysseus a bag made of ox hide, filled with every wind that blows, regardless of the direction.
Aelous giving the winds

Aeolus Giving the Winds to Odysseus by Isaac Moillon, (1614 – 1673).

To this, Aeolus placed the bag in Odysseus’ ship hold, “tied with a glittering silver cord,” and gave the westward wind instruction to blow alone, carrying Odysseus and his men home.
“But when I, on my part, asked him that I might depart and bade him send me on my way, he, too, denied me nothing, but furthered my sending. He gave me a wallet, made of the hide of an ox nine years old, which he flayed, and therein he bound the paths of the blustering winds; for the son of Cronos had made him keeper of the winds, both to still and to rouse whatever one he will. And in my hollow ship he bound it fast with a bright cord of silver, that not a breath might escape, were it never so slight. But for my furtherance he sent forth the breath of the West Wind to blow, that it might bear on their way both ships and men. Yet this he was not to bring to pass, for we were lost through our own folly.”
It wouldn’t be the Odyssey, though, if there wasn’t some snap in the plan. Odysseus himself claimed that it was their own “folly” that ruined them. According to the epic, the ship was in sight of their land on the 10th day sailing from Aeolus. They could see the fires of their shores.
However, the crew, positive that Odysseus was bringing home riches from Aeolus, opened the bag of winds to see for themselves. At this, the winds rushed out all at once and hurled the ship back to the open waters and to the shores of Aeolus once again.
Cave of winds

Odysseus in the Cave of the Winds by Stradanus (possibly 1590-1599)

When the keeper of the winds questioned Odysseus as to why they had returned, Odysseus admitted it was the result of his foolish crew. Aeolus said he was forsaken by the gods and banished him from the island, without any further help.
“`How hast thou come hither, Odysseus? What cruel god assailed thee? Surely we sent thee forth with kindly care, that thou mightest reach thy native land and thy home, and whatever place thou wouldest.’
“So said they [Aeolus with his wife and children], but I with a sorrowing heart spoke among them and said: `Bane did my evil comrades work me, and therewith sleep accursed; but bring ye healing, my friends, for with you is the power.’
“So I spoke and addressed them with gentle words, but they were silent. Then their father answered and said: `Begone from our island with speed, thou vilest of all that live. In no wise may I help or send upon his way that man who is hated of the blessed gods. Begone, for thou comest hither as one hated of the immortals.’”
Artistic depictions of Aeolus were not very popular, perhaps due to the muddled nature of the three Aeolus’, or perhaps due to the more attractive subjects of greater gods and stories. Roman and Sicilian renderings of Aeolus show a male face with the lips blowing at the earth, a tree, the ocean, etc. More paintings and drawings of Aeolus became common during the Renaissance, but still they are not copious.
After all, the wind isn’t something you see, it’s something you feel. And no painting can capture the power of the god of the winds!

Asclepius: Modern Medicine in Ancient Times

by February 12, 2020

Written by Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Medicine may often seem like a miracle. People are quick to praise god and marvel at the outcome of the doctor’s skill and training, with families often turning to hope of divine intervention of a higher power to save their loved one. This is not new to the modern age—nor should this come as a surprise.
Throughout history, the skill of doctors and their results have often been touted as the work of gods, or even magic depending on the healer and the time. And, just like today, entire cultures and regimes grew out of the notion of medicine and healing; just take a look at the ancient Greeks.
Asclepius, while not often depicted in common Greek receptions, is undoubtedly one of the more important of the gods and demigods. As the god of medicine, Greeks would find themselves lifting up sacrifice and prayer to him at one point or another. He was the son of Apollo and Coronis, with Apollo himself being the god of healing, plagues, and prophecy (amongst other things, of course).
Asclepius’ birth was traumatic, with Apollo killing Coronis for being unfaithful to him. As she was thrown on the funeral pyre, myth has it, Apollo realized she was pregnant and cut Asclepius from her womb. From there, Apollo took the baby to a centaur, Chiron, who raised him and taught him the art of medicine and healing.

The extraction of Asclepius from the abdomen of his mother Coronis by his father Apollo. Woodcut from the 1549 edition of Alessandro Beneditti’s De Re Medica.

His marriage to Epione, the goddess of soothing, made their union and offspring particularly suited to cover the ailments of the Greek world. Together they had five daughters and three sons. One of these was Hygieia, the goddess of health and cleanliness, and the source for our word ‘hygiene.’
Amongst Asclepius’ powers was the ability to heal all humans, even the dying and dead. His ability to help humans cheat death, or even resurrect them, enraged Hades, who didn’t like to see souls leaving his realm. Hades then went to Zeus to gripe about this, and Zeus took on the feud as his own, angered himself that Asclepius did not ask permission to revive the dead. To this end, Zeus struck down Asclepius with a thunderbolt and placed his body in the sky.
Asclepius’ symbol is a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. If this depiction sounds familiar, it’s because it is. This symbol adorns most ambulances and pharmacies, as well as hospitals. However, it’s also common to see a staff with two serpents entwined around it, the Caduceus staff, which is most closely related to Hermes and not Asclepius.
In ancient art, Asclepius is portrayed in sculpture, pottery, mosaics, and coins. He is shown with a full beard, his staff, and a simple himation (an outer garment worn by the ancient Greeks over the left shoulder and under the right.). Since the honoring of Asclepius attracted patrons from all over the Greek world, his presence in art throughout the city states and regions is quite common and uniform.

Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus.

One of the most famous temples of Asclepius is found at Epidaurus, originally founded in the 6th century BCE but with most of the buildings now dating to the 4th century BCE. This sprawling sanctuary worked to cater to the needs of any of the ill and feeble.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus is a UNESCO world heritage center and is located in a valley in the Peloponnese. In the sanctuary is a theater and tholos (a large ceremonial tomb) dating to the 4th century, hospital buildings, hotel style convalescent buildings, baths, libraries, and sports arenas.
The columned Abato, or Enkoimeterion, building was designed for overnight visitors, after they had gone through a series of purification rituals. In their dreams, Asclepius was to appear to them and offer insight to cures and remedies for their ailments, to later be administered and carried out by themselves or priests. At the temples and for sacrifices, small replicas of the injured body parts (like feet or arms) would be offered to the god during sacrifice with a prayer lifted up asking for healing and attention.
The theater at Epidaurus is said to be one of the best of its kind, the acoustics shocking visitors even today. In the summer, you can still catch plays and concerts put on for the public.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses: How Love Transforms

by February 5, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If there is one literary work that has inspired a legacy of artists, poets, and creators, it’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Comprising 250 myths and over nearly 1200 lines of poetry, it makes up an impressive 15 books of life-defining narration.
Ovid’s work doesn’t just offer a creation myth, it defines an entire belief system, and although his popularity has faded since the Renaissance, there is still much we can learn from and admire about his literary creation. But, how did Ovid produce this famous work, and what influenced him?

Ancient Beginnings

You might be surprised to know that Ovid’s defining work was actually influenced by Alexandrian poetry, which was written in Ancient Greek with the earliest texts dating to the Archaic period. The most notable contributions to Alexandrian poetry were, of course, the two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Yet, where that tradition focused on myths as a means for moral reflection and insight, Ovid chose a more playful adaption to these tales. This style of the collection, or metamorphosis poetry, can be found in the Hellenistic tradition, with Boios’ Ornithogonia portraying the metamorphosis of birdlife stemming from human origins.
Ovid 1

Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis (present-day Constanța, Romania).

Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been considered an epic, as it is of a significant length, is told in dactylic hexameter, and has over 250 narratives chronicled across 15 books. Whilst the text is unbroken in its chronology, Brooks Otis identified four naturally occurring divisions and stories within the publication, which he refers to as:
  • Book I–Book II (end, line 875): The Divine Comedy
  • Book III–Book VI, 400: The Avenging Gods
  • Book VI, 401–Book XI (end, line 795): The Pathos of Love
  • Book XII–Book XV (end, line 879): Rome and the Deified Ruler
However, where epics or epic-like offshoots focus on restraining themselves to one style or genre, Metamorphoses breaks with this tradition by utilizing the themes and tones of many literary styles. These range from the obvious epic to tragedy, and from elegy to pastoral; as such it has defied categorization into any one genre.
So, what did Ovid write about, and what can we learn from its human and immortal metamorphosis?
Metamorphoses is considered to be a comprehensive chronology that recounts the world’s creation through to the death of Julius Caesar – a pivotal event which occurred only 1 year before Ovid’s birth in 43 BC. As such, Metamorphoses is also thought to be an example of universal history, as this fulfilled a societal need from the 1st century BC.
Ovid 2

Portrait of Ovid, bust in profile to the right, wearing laurel crown; in medallion; illustration to Jephson’s ‘Roman Portraits’. 1794. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ovid begins his work with the ritual of invoking the Muse, where he makes use of epithetical and circumlocutory traditions. However, it deviates here from the expected extolment of a mortal hero, and instead leaps from story to story with no apparent connection or reason. Ovid’s narration style has been considered arbitrary, and these tales sometimes overlap in their content, when they relate to events that were considered to be central to the world of Greek mythology.
One recurring theme of Metamorphoses is that of Love. That includes personal love or as the personified deity, Amor/Cupid. In Ovid’s work, the gods were continually humiliated and confused by Love, who was usually considered to be a relatively insignificant minor god.

“Thus she disclos’d the woman’s secret heart,
Young, innocent, and new to Cupid’s dart.
Her thoughts, her words, her actions wildly rove,
With love she burns, yet knows not that ’tis love.”

~ Book X

One example is a tale of Apollo, who was so confounded by love that he was unable to think rationally or to even use reason. This portrayal of all-powerful gods made them much more relatable with human passions and experiences and elevated humans to being almost god-like as they battled for superior intelligence and control.

“But the lewd monarch [Phoebus/Apollo], tho’ withdrawn apart,
Still feels love’s poison rankling in his heart:
Her face divine is stamp’d within his breast,
Fancy imagines, and improves the rest:
And thus, kept waking by intense desire,
He nourishes his own prevailing fire.”

~ Book VI

Apollo and daphne

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Venetian, 1696 – 1770), Apollo Pursuing Daphne
c. 1755/1760.

However, throughout the narrative, the most apparent and unifying theme is (perhaps not unsurprisingly, based on the title!) metamorphosis or transformation. This significance is announced at the very beginning with the opening line “In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas /corpora” or “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities”.
Often accompanying this transformation is the theme of violence, usually performed upon a victim whose tale becomes embedded into the natural landscape. This literary theme is the amalgamation of a pursuer seeking their reward, and the thematic tension portrayed between nature and art.
Some of the transformations described include those of humans becoming constellations, animals or fungus. Other transformations are of gender or appearance, yet the metamorphoses are usually hidden within the metatextual poem through the language used to deceive the reader, causing them to question their thoughts or beliefs.

The Influence of the Metamorphoses

When we think about Ovid’s work, it’s easy to relegate it to before the first millennia, that its tongue-in-cheek humor is no longer appreciated or has any influence. But, is that really the case? Not really, as it was only a few hundred years ago we can see Metamorphoses having a huge influence on what we now consider to be classic literature, and as providing significant contributions to historic and cultural identity.
Ovid 4

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838) by J.M.W. Turner.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we have several adaptations that can be identified with a Metamorphoses-base: The Wife of Bath is based on Midas’ story, as is The Book of the Duchess, which is based on Ceyx and Alcyone. We can also see Ovid’s influence in several of Shakespeare’s works, including Romeo and Juliet which is influenced by Pyramus and Thisbe, and even Prospero’s speech in The Tempest, which is almost taken word-for-word from Medea’s speech in Metamorphoses.
Other writers who’ve benefited from Ovid’s influence include John Milton in Paradise Lost, and works by Giovanni Boccaccio, and Dante. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, both artists and writers benefitted hugely from the renewed interest in Ovid’s work, so much so that it spawned the term “Ovidian”. Although this trend did peter out over the 18th century, towards the 20th century there was another resurgence and appreciation of his work.
Although the first publication of Metamorphoses was available from 8 AD, around Ovid’s exile, no original manuscript survives from the period. There are, however, examples from the 9th and 10th centuries in fragmented form, as well as some complete manuscripts from the 11th century. Fortunately, there are also translations of these manuscripts, with the earliest English version being produced by William Caxton in 1480.
Other English translations date from 1567, by Arthur Golding, and George Sandys in 1621-26. Then in 1717, Samuel Garth produced a translation that was heralded as being produced “by the most eminent hands”, which included contributions from John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, Tate Gay, William Congreve, and Nicholas Rowe. This translation was printed for many years, well into the 1800s, and was considered to be without any real rival until the 20th century when new translations began to appear, and this trend has continued into the 21st century and the digital age.
Ovid 5

Portrait of Ovid by James Godby, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani, 1815. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Transformational Lessons

If we are to learn anything from Ovid’s work, it’s probably these fundamental points: with its power to confuse and overwhelm, Love will humanize even the most god-like beings, and that everything and everyone, even the gods, are subject to the transformative powers of love.
So, don’t try and run from love. If the gods can’t escape it, neither can you!

“The fire of love the more it is supprest,
The more it glows, and rages in the breast.”

~ Book IV

Polyphemus: Two faces of a Cyclops

by January 29, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Polyphemus is best known as the Cyclops that Odysseus and his men encountered on their return from the Trojan War. But, is there another side to this man-eating giant? And what happened to him after Odysseus sailed away?

The legend is born

Polyphemus was one of the many children born to Poseidon, and to Thoosa the daughter of the primordial sea-god Phorcys. Polyphemus and his brothers are not to be confused with the three Cyclopes that were born to Uranus and Gaia, along with their 12 Titan siblings.

No, Polyphemus is the grumpy and reclusive Cyclops who lived in a mountain cave on the Cyclopean isles, near Sicily in Italy. This island is the home of these Cyclopean sons of Poseidon. It is not known if he and his brothers were brought into the world through any divine birthing ritual. However, it is conceivable that as both his parents were of the sea, that Polyphemus and his brothers came ashore after their primordial delivery.

It’s there, on the Cyclopean isles, where Polyphemus carried out his daily routine of herding sheep, making cheese, and keeping his own company. It is also here that he quickly gained a reputation for dining on lamb and mutton, sheep’s milk and cheese, and for developing a taste for human flesh. It is this latter preference that eventually leads him into trouble.

Poussin polyphemus

Landscape with Polyphemus, Nicholas Poussin (France, 1649).

Odysseus arrives

Whilst sailing back from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his crew land on the shores of the Cyclopean isles. In a search for provisions, they uncover Polyphemus’ store and help themselves. No doubt tempted by the aroma of human flesh, and angered by their rudeness, Polyphemus traps the men inside his cave by closing the giant stone door.

He denied these guests the customary hospitality; instead, devouring two of the men before going to sleep. When morning came, Polyphemus again attacked the crew, killing and eating another two men before leaving to graze his sheep for the day.

Odysseus and his remaining men were left all day inside Polyphemus’ cave. There they conceived of an escape and made preparations, including hardening a giant stake. When Polyphemus returned, Odysseus engaged him in conversation and offered him undiluted wine. The Cyclops once again proved himself rude and uncivilized by eating another two men.

Polyphemus then sealed his fate by offering Odysseus a guest-gift, or Xenia; the offer of friendship and hospitality, in exchange for Odysseus’ name. Wise to the cruel behavior of the Cyclops, Odysseus gives him the name “Οτις,” or ‘Nobody.’

“But when the wine had stolen about the wits of the Cyclops, then I spoke to him with gentle words: ‘So, you ask me the name I’m known by, Cyclops? I will tell you. But you must give me a guest-gift as you’ve promised. Nobody is my name, Nobody do they call me—my mother and my father, and all my comrades as well.’ So I spoke, and he straightway answered me with pitiless heart: ‘Nobody? I’ll eat Nobody last of all his friends—I’ll eat the others first! That’s my gift to you!’” ~ The Odyssey, Book IX

Polyphemus cave

Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus: Jacob Jordaens, 1635.

As Polyphemus’ drunken state takes hold, he falls asleep, and this is when Odysseus and his men strike. They maneuver the wooden stake above the Cyclops’ eye, plunging it into the soft-muscle, blinding Polyphemus. The Cyclops began shouting for help from his brothers, but on hearing that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him, his brothers believe it to be a divine situation and suggest prayer as the solution.

In the morning, Polyphemus opens the doorway to let his sheep out for grazing. But, aware that his attackers, and breakfast, are still inside he counts the sheep as they exit by feeling their backs.

Unbeknownst to the blind Cyclops, Odysseus and his crew have tied themselves to the underbellies of the sheep. Thus, they escaped as the sheep exited the cave, but not before Odysseus tells Polyphemus his real name; an act of hubris that will have ramifications later.

Upon realizing that the men have fooled him, Polyphemus charges down to the shore, shouting and hurling rocks at the men. Polyphemus prays to his father, who appears not to respond to his blinded son. Hearing no answer, he continued to throw rocks at them, only narrowly missing the departing ship.

Odysseus and Polyphemus, Arnold Boecklin (1827-1901).

We hear again of Polyphemus’ rage when Aeneas describes having watched the Cyclops using a “lopped pine tree” as a walking staff. With this aid, the giant staggers down to the shore where he washes his oozing eye socket, the painful groans echoing out across the water.

It is here that Aeneas encounters Achaemenides, one of Odysseus’s crew, who was unfortunately left on the island as they fled. The lost crew member tells Aeneas how his crew escaped and he is taken aboard, with Aeneas’ ship casting off immediately as Polyphemus discovers them. The Cyclops’ roars of anger and frustration draw the other Cyclopes to the shore, only to see the ship on the horizon.

Love-sick Polyphemus?

Whilst most of us are well acquainted with the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus, there is a second account of the Cyclops that appears sometime later, although apparently pre-dates the interaction with Odysseus. Some Classical writers have made a link between the nymph Galatea and Polyphemus, with different portrayals of his behavior. 

The best known of these accounts is a play by Philoxenus of Cythera, which dates from 400 BC. In it, there is a link between the author, and Dionysius I of Syracuse, and the king’s mistress, Galatea. In the play, the author is represented as the Odysseus character, and the king as the Cyclops, with the two lovers escaping.

Polyphemus and Galatea

Fragment of wall painting depicting the Cyclop Polyphemus and the Nymph Galatea sensuously kissing in the arms of each other. Also visible: ram, Pan flute, shepherd stick. Pompeii, House of the Ancient Hunt (VII, 4, 48).

Theocritus was more sympathetic with his pastoral poetry, wherein Idyll XI and Idyll VI, Polyphemus is transfigured into the role of a herdsman who finds solace in song over his love for Galatea. Bion of Smyrna is also much kinder in his portrayal of Polyphemus and the Cyclops’ undying love for the sea-nymph, Galatea.  

However, it is in Lucian of Samosata that there are indicators that Polyphemus’ relationship with Galatea was more successful. Lucian suggests that Galatea has sisters, and that one known as Doris is jealous of their relationship, but that Galatea does not love Polyphemus—a fact that fails to bother him, as he has chosen her above all others. Whilst there are other versions of this same theme, it is perhaps Ovid’s depiction that we recognize as having similarities to Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops.  

In his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the blind rage that Polyphemus flies into upon spying Galatea and the mortal Acis during their lovemaking. In his enraged state, Polyphemus crushes Acis with a rock, with Galatea fleeing into the water. She returns only briefly to change Acis into the spirit of the Sicilian river .

“Acis, the lovely youth, whose loss I mourn,
From Faunus, and the nymph Symethis born,
Was both his parents’ pleasure; but, to me
Was all that love could make a lover be.
The Gods our minds in mutual bands did join:
I was his only joy, and he was mine.
Now sixteen summers the sweet youth had seen;
And doubtful down began to shade his chin:
When Polyphemus first disturb’d our joy;
And lov’d me fiercely, as I lov’d the boy.” ~ Ovid, Metamorphoses 

Polyphemus today

It is perhaps this version of events that we are most familiar with, as it was popular during both the Renaissance and Baroque periods. During these times of increased artistic creativity, we see many paintings, sculptures, poems, and music created.

polyphemus blinding

The Blinding of Polyphemus, Tiberius’ villa at Sperlonga.

In 1627, Luis de Góngora y Argote produced Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, as a homage to the work by the same title (1611) by Luis Carillo y Sotomayor. The story was also given an operatic overhaul and made popular by Antoni Lliteres Carrió (1708). Polyphème en furie, a sonnet by Tristan L’Hermite in 1641, was produced as a condensed version that contained only 14 lines. Italy also embraced the story, with Giovanni Bononcini’s Polifemo in 1703, and George Frideric Handel’s cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo that was written in that country.

In 1718, John Gay composed work that would later be given to and updated by Mozart and Mendelssohn. It also followed the Theocritan pastoral style, but largely focuses on the two lovers over the actions of Polyphemus. There are many more musical representations that span the years into the 21st century with Reginald Smith Brindle’s El Polifemo de Oro (1956) and Andres Valero Castells’ Polifemo i Galatea, written for brass band in 2001.

Polyphemus has been portrayed in many sculptures and paintings as well, including paintings by Giulio Romano in 1528, Nicholas Poussin in 1649, Corneille Van Clève in 1681, and others like François Perrier, Giovanni Lanfranco, Jean-Baptiste van Loo, and Gustave Moreau who painted a whole series. Auguste Rodin’s series of clay statues from 1888 that were later cast into bronze statues are well known and may have been inspired by the work of Auguste Ottin from 1866.

What does appear to be a theme in all of these works, is the moment of rage that comes over Polyphemus upon discovering Acis and Galatea, and the casting forth of a rock as the lovers flee; somewhat akin to the Cyclops’ reaction towards Odysseus.

polyphemus and acis

Acis, Galatea, and Polyphemus, François Perrier (1590-1650).


Whilst it is hard to imagine Polyphemus, a man-eating and crude Cyclops, having fallen in love with a sea-nymph, it is plausible to believe the link from Ovid’s description of his rage-filled behavior.

Perhaps it is this link that fueled the Cyclops’ taste for man-flesh; with feelings of anger and unrequited love, it is understandable that Polyphemus would punish any man who took what the Cyclops felt was his.

However, it is this attitude that ultimately betrays him, distorting fact and duty from emotion and mentality. When Polyphemus set about to punish Odysseus and his men, he broke the rules of hospitality and further insulted his guests by lying in his offering of Xenia.

This is what brought about his physical blinding by the legendary hero, and also thrust the Cyclops into the pages of history as a cruel and vengeful giant who was bested by a scared and desperate man.


The blinded Polyphemus seeks vengeance on Odysseus: Guido Reni’s painting in the Capitoline Museums.

If we learn nothing else from the story of Polyphemus, it should be to be slow to anger, to be generous to strangers, and to not break the laws of hospitality. For if we do, we leave ourselves blind, with nobody to blame but ourselves.


The Herdsman of the Stars

by January 22, 2020

By Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Even to the modern mind, the starry abyss above us encourages a sense of awe and wonder. In the ancient times, they linked their mythos to the heavens and told tales of how the star clusters, or constellations, came to be.
One of these constellations of the Northern Hemisphere, Boötes, can be seen culminating in the midnight sky around May 1st. It is easily identifiable due to the housing fourth brightest star in the sky, Arcturus, located at the mans’ knee. This star was observed from the time of Hesiod (8th century BC) and was so called due to its constant pursuing of the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellations. Naturally, this is not the only story connected to this set of stars.
Ancient Greek Astronomy
There are 88 officially recognized constellations, according to the International Astronomical Union, and most of these have been documented since 150 A.D, by Ptolemy in his The Almagest. Ptolemy was drawing information from thousands of years of astronomical observations.
The Greeks absorbed the astronomy and mythology from their older neighbours, the Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians, during the 6th century BC. The Mesopotamians had all of their constellations recorded between 1300-1000 B.C, making some of the information we have today over 3,000 years old!

Johannes Hevelius’ Boötes from Uranographia (1690)

The oldest sources for Greek astrology can be found in the eighth century B.C epics of Homer and Hesiod, with both mentioning two prominent constellations (Orion and the Great Bear), two-star clusters (the Pleiades and the Hyades), and two stars (Sirius and Arcturus) – but nothing more.  It was later when Eratosthenes, a Greek academic based at the Library of Alexandria, unintentionally created the canon of the astral mythos most commonly recognized today, and undoubtedly some of his tales originate from much older skies.
For the ancients, the stars aided in navigation, and the tracking of time, and constellation movements were likely noted after following the movements and phases of the moon. Not unlike modern humans, the twinkling abyss sparked their imagination, and the star clusters had legendary tales of mythic figures attached to them.
Muddled Mythos
Like all the mythos concerning the stars, this story is not straightforward.
One of the known tales for this links Boötes to Icarius. Dionysus taught the Athenian herdsman the art of winemaking, which proved fatal for the herder. He shared his new talent with fellow herdsman, and due to failing to dilute the drink, was torn apart in an intoxicated frenzy when his companions believed themselves bewitched by powerful spells.

Icarios being taught the art of wine making by Dionysus, 3rd century Roman mosaic, Paphos, Cyprus.

His body lay torn, buried beneath a pine-tree. His daughter, Erigone, with the aid of her dog Maera, recovered her father’s body but was so grief-stricken, she hung herself. With her death, she lay a curse upon Athens until justice was served. Athenian maidens were found hanging from the pine until the Oracle revealed Erigone’s curse, and the guilty saw their justice.
The city instated a festival, the Vintage Festival, in which libations to father and daughter were made and young girls swung on branches of trees – leading to the invention of the swing. This valley is now known as Dionysus, possibly due to the gods’ decision to place the figures of this legend amongst the heavens; Erigone as Virgo, her hound Maera as Canis Minor or Canes Venatici, and her father as Boötes.
This is not the only variant of the Icarius and Erigone tragedy attached to this star cluster, but they are extremely similar. The difference is the beginning, where Icarius had traversed the lands trading his wine and it was only after his long absence that his daughter became concerned. His death by jealous shepherd was unknown to her, and her suicidal sacrifice cemented her plea to the gods: that Athens suffers as she has until the absence of her father is investigated.
Bee-zy Boötes
However, tales of Boötes also connect the herdsman to the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. He was a priest in Athens, dedicated to Athene and Poseidon, and married to his niece, Chthonia. On the Argonaut’s roll-call, the Athenian is named to be the ‘bee-master,’ and on the journey, it was Boötes who attempted to swim away from the Sirens call, just to be swept away by Aphrodite to Mount Eryx.

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1868, Firmin Girard (Public Domain)

On this mountainside, Aphrodite, in an attempt to make young Anatolian lover Adonis jealous, seduced the bee-master and birthed him a son bearing the name of the mountain they had conceived him by. Eryx grew to be a wrestler who fought with Heracles – losing his life and kingdom in the process, and his daughter, Psophis, provided Heracles two sons. Interestingly, Mount Eryx is famous for its bee cult.
It’s known that star-lore was often pulled from other cultures. However, in this case, the confusion was made due to internal changes. The variant legends of Boötes are adjustments created by the Buteids in 6th century BC Athens – their influence on the city’s priesthood granted them access to alter mythologies to immerse themselves, and fully immigrate, to Athenian history.
Interesting, the tale of the wine-infused murder and curse of a city also displays evidence of being a non-native to Athenian star-lore. The name ‘Icarius’ itself indicates that this tale was born from the Cyclades, with the custom of swinging likely coming from Crete.
The Herder, or Bear-Gaurd
As previously mentioned, this constellation is often connected to Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – albeit in differing, and confusing ways. Lore exists that claims the herdsman to be pursuing the sky bears around the North Pole. There is another that claims he is the protector of the bears!
Hevelius' ursa major

Johannes Hevelius’ Ursa Major from Uranographia (1690)

However, he has also been attributed to the son of the Ursa Major constellation. After being raised under the roof of Lycaon after metamorphic misfortune fell upon his mother, the unlucky youngster Arcas was served up to Zeus as a homely meal. Appalled, Zeus destroyed the home of Lycaon with a thunderbolt and transformed the insulting host into a wolf. Zeus reassembled the boy and entrusted his care to an Aetolian hunter. Raised to hunt, Arcas nearly let lose a fatal arrow that would’ve killed his own mother – who had been transformed into a bear. Zeus intervened and placed the family in the heavens.
Something older, maybe?
The histories of Petellides of Knossos tell us that there were two brothers, Philomelos and Ploutos, who did not get along. Ploutos, as indicated by his name, was greedy with his wealth, determined not to share with his poor brother.
Out of the necessity to survive, Philomelos worked himself to the bone in order to purchase two oxen. He then created and constructed the first wagon. His mother, Demeter of the Harvest, adored this invention and was proud of the achievements and ability of Philomelos to support himself through agricultural means. To display her admiration, she placed him amongst the stars as the ploughman.
Interestingly, the sources also seem to merge to create a story of a young farmer inventing the plough. He shared his work with fellow farmers, and word soon spread of the more efficient and less backbreaking invention. Farmers saw their pockets fill with more money due to the plough. So, because of his ingenuity, Bootes was placed amongst the stars and revered for his creation. This made his means of survival – agriculture – a lot less of a chore!
Bootes Urania

Boötes as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. In his left hand he holds his hunting dogs, Canes Venatici. Below them is the constellation Coma Berenices. Above the head of Boötes is Quadrans Muralis, now obsolete, but which lives on as the name of the early January Quadrantid meteor shower. Mons Mænalus can be seen at his feet.

In some legends, the constellation is known as Atlas, due to his position in the sky from pole to equator. While this is my favourite version of the myth, there is little information surrounding it.
It is clear that this constellation has many branches of mythology that intertwine with one another. Despite their differences, however, it is agreed that this is a man, revered for the sharing of his invention. All of them together tell the history of, and draw attention to, the importance of farming activities for the peoples of the ancient world, through an inspiring medium of starry stories.

Artemis: Wonder Woman of the Ancient World

by January 15, 2020

Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There’s more to this goddess than her Amazon-like reputation. Artemis, daughter of Zeus, twin-sister of Apollo, and with a host of temples dedicated to her, was once part of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. More than just the goddess of the hunt, her influence can be seen in pop-culture as a reinvented feminist icon.

A Helpful Birth

When Leto, Artemis’ mother, was pregnant with her divine twins, her arch-nemesis was furious. Hera was so enraged, over Zeus’ philandering, that she forbade Leto to give birth on either mainland Greece or any island. This caused something of a predicament for the heavily pregnant Titan.
However, the island of Delos disobeyed Hera and offered the mother-to-be sanctuary on the island. It is here that Artemis made her arrival, or at least one version of events has it so. According to the Homeric Hymn, Artemis was born on Ortygia. But, as Leto was also worshipped at Phaistos, Cretan mythology says the twins were born on the island of Paximadia (as it is known today).
Another mystery is which twin was born first. The Homeric Hymn cites the locations thus:
“Rejoice, blessed Leto, for you bare glorious children, the lord Apollon and Artemis who delights in arrows; her in Ortygia, and him in rocky Delos.”

The Diana of Versailles, a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture by Leochares
(Louvre Museum)

However, one of Artemis’ most endearing characteristics comes from the story in which she was born first. As the elder twin, she then helped bring forth her brother, the great Sun-god Apollo.
Her childhood is shrouded in mystery, with the only surviving tale mentioned in the Iliad. Here, the goddess is spoken of as a girl who was punished by Hera, and who then seeks solace in Zeus’ lap, a distressed daughter seeking comfort from her father. What is known is that Artemis follows in the footsteps of Athena and Hestia; she decides to remain a maiden.
This lifelong commitment appears to be supported by her companions, who also remained virgins, with Artemis closely guarding her own virginity. It’s also believed that she was chosen by the Fates to be a goddess of midwifery since she was involved in successfully delivering her brother.
Callimachus, the Libyan-Greek poet, describes how Artemis spent much of her formative years: seeking out what she would need as a huntress. He also describes how she gained her iconic bow and arrows: from another island near Ortygia, the small island of Lipara, where Hephaestus and the Titan Cyclopes worked in the Olympian forge.
He describes Artemis’ bravery, that where Oceanus’ daughters were afraid, the young goddess was bold and asked for a bow and arrows, first practicing on tress and then on wild beasts. Next, she sought out Pan in the wilderness, where the god of the forest then gave her seven female and six male dogs for her hunting pack. Artemis then tracked and trapped six golden-horned deer for her chariot.
apollo and artemis

Apollo and Artemis. Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup. (Public Domain)

Artemis and love

As a sworn virgin, Artemis had no consort and cared only for hunting, and her hunting companion, Orion. Sadly, Orion was killed and the details of his death are unclear; some attribute blame to Artemis herself, others to Apollo or Gaia who did not approve of the relationship.
Artemis’ affections are also sought by Alpheus, a river god, Bouphagos, a Titan son of Iapetus, and Siproites a mortal boy. Alpheus, besotted with Artemis, becomes frustrated by her refusal of interest and decides to trap her. Artemis suspects Alpheus is scheming, and when he attempts to rape Arethusa, thinking it is Artemis, she saves her attendant by transforming Arethusa into a spring in the temple Artemis Alphaea, near Letrini.
Both Bouphagos and Siproites meet with a similar fate; at Mount Pholoe, Artemis strikes Bouphagos after she reads his thoughts and learns of his plans to rape her. Siproites has a life-transforming experience, being transformed into a girl, after he either sees Artemis naked or attempts to rape her.

Crime and punishment

But perhaps the best-known stories of Artemis are those involving Actaeon and Adonis. Actaeon was another of Artemis’ hunting companions, and like his immortal friend, he had a pack of hunting dogs. Whether it was an act of hubris, like seeing the goddess naked in her sacred spring, or as a result of him attempting to force himself on her in that condition, for these acts he was transformed into a mighty stag, which was then hunted down and devoured by his own hounds.
orion's death

‘Diana over Orion’s corpse’ (1685) by Daniel Seiter. ( Public Domain )

Adonis, for his part, was foolish enough to boast that he was a greater hunter than Artemis, and for this, she sent a wild boar to kill him as punishment. In later versions of this myth, it is believed that this was a revenge killing, due to Aphrodite being responsible for killing Hippolytus, one of Artemis’ favorites.
These two are not the only ones to feel the sting of this archer’s aim. The Aloadae or twin sons, Otos and Ephialtes, were two enormous and fast-growing offspring of the god Poseidon. They were unable to be killed unless they killed each other, and as they grew more and more aggressive and unstoppable in their pursuits, they set their eyes on taking Artemis and Hera as wives.
However, where the other gods were afraid of the Aloadae, they were stopped by Artemis’ bravery; by capturing a deer, or transforming herself into one, it dived between the two monstrous men and they speared each other to death in an attempt to kill it.

Artemis’ other stories

There are many more stories about Artemis and various mythological characters. There’s the tale of Callisto, a woman who was raped by Zeus or Apollo, and who bore a son as a result. Outraged, either Hera or Artemis changed Callisto into a bear, only for her son, Arcas, to almost kill her. Their story ends well though, with either Artemis or Zeus placing mother and son in the heavens, as the constellations Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.

‘Diana and Callisto’ (circa 1566) by Titian. ( Public Domain )

Agamemnon was punished by Artemis too, for killing a stag in a sacred grove, and then boasted that he was a better hunter than her. As a result, when it came time to sail for Troy and the Trojan War, Artemis calmed the seas and delayed the king’s departure. How did he appease the insulted goddess? By offering the human sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. Fortunately for the girl, Artemis swooped in at the last second and carried her away, where the princess would become an immortal companion to the goddess.
Another common theme in stories relates to Artemis and jealousy, two such stories involve Niobe, a Queen of Thebes, and the Pokis princess Chione, both of which felt the sting of Artemis’ retribution after boasts of their superior beauty.
Artemis is also known for having saved the infant Atalanta by sending a female bear to nurture the infant. Unfortunately, although Atalanta never made the claim herself, when others exclaimed that her hunting prowess must be greater than that of the goddess, Artemis then sent a bear to hurt her.

Worship of the goddess

As the goddess of hills and forests, Artemis was worshiped throughout much of ancient Greece. It is on Delos, the ‘center’ of the Cycladic islands, that the worship of Artemis is best known. However, she also had dedicated followers at Brauron and Mounikhia, both near modern-day Piraeus, and in Sparta. The Spartans revered her so much they often made sacrifices to her before embarking on a new military campaign.
temple of artemis drums

Column Drum from the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus
by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA).

You can often spot Artemis easily in paintings and sculptures, due to her often being depicted with a bow and arrows, accompanied by a deer, or set in a forest location. Some of her other symbols include chariots, spears, nets, the lyre, hunting dogs, bears, boars, guinea fowl, and the buzzard hawk.
The Athenians also encouraged serving the goddess by sending their daughters to the sanctuary. Whilst there, the girls were to ‘act the bear’ as penance for the village inhabitants killing a wild bear. The villagers had fed a bear until it became tame, the bear killed a girl by accident or in self-defense, and the girl’s brothers then slaughtered the bear, which enraged Artemis in the process. The arktoi, of little she-bears, as they were known, would serve the goddess for one year, before they became women and of marriageable age.
There are numerous Athenian festivals held to honor Artemis, including celebrations at Mounikhia, Brauronia, Elapheboila, and Kharisteria, and the Spartan festival of Artemis Orthia. Artemis was also worshipped as a goddess of childbirth and midwifery, due to her involvement in delivering her twin brother, Apollo. She was also feared for this reason, as deaths during pregnancy were not uncommon, and the passing of both mother and child was seen as linked to her.
But, most of all, Artemis is known for retaining her maidenhood, for refusing to marry or take a lover. She is one of the few virgin goddesses, however, that is both worshipped for celibacy and also motherhood and childbirth. As such, she is also associated with Persephone and Demeter, as according to Herodotus, they were worshipped as mother goddesses.
roman copy

Female statue, probably a Roman copy of the statue of Artemis by Kephisodotos. ( Public Domain )

Finally, Artemis left her mark on the ancient world in the form of her temple at Ephesus, in Ionia, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the (ancient) World. This temple is perhaps the best-known center of her worship outside of Delos.


Artemis is still honored today. Her name is born by several important astrological achievements: 105 Artemis, Artemis crater, Artemis Chasma, Artemis Corona, and the Artemis lunar program.
Artemis also lends her name to a tiny aquatic species: sea monkeys or Artemia salina, which live in salt lakes and seldom in open waters – except for along the Aegean coast near where her temple stood at Ephesus.
Perhaps one of the most surprising legacies though is her association with her Roman counterpart. Whilst the Greeks know her as Artemis, the Romans preferred the name Diana. Diana, of course, is the daughter of Jupiter, the Roman form of Zeus, King of the Gods. As such, Diana is a princess.
artemis gods

Zeus, Leto, Apollo & Artemis
by Ophelia2 (Public Domain).

That name may sound familiar, and with good reason. Diana Prince is the alias used by Wonder Woman when living in the mundane world. Wonder Woman, of course, is an Amazon who was born to the Queen of the Amazons and is a daughter of none other than… Zeus. So, whilst Gal Gadot is the latest to reprise the role, it is plausible that the inspiration for the original character does, in fact, stem from the ancient Greek goddess, Artemis.


The story, or stories, of Artemis, are fascinating and have certainly spanned the ages. From being born on the shores of a distant island to helping deliver her protective brother, Apollo, through to her various adventures with other Classical heroes, Artemis’ journey is an incredible one.
What stands out most though, is Artemis’ steadfastness and unwavering belief in herself, and her purpose in life. Whilst it’s true that she’s not always benevolent, and can have a vicious temper, she is also the goddess of childbirth and midwifery, both of which demand a strong degree of empathy and understanding.
Artemis is known throughout the ancient and modern world, as a woman of intelligence, determination, righteousness, and as a protector of defenseless women. She is respected as a woman who knows her own mind, and who will not be swayed into conforming to social norms to appease others.
statue of artemis

Statue of Artemis from Mytilene
by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin (CC BY-NC-SA)

Now, in the 21st century, we can see the effects of her as a role model; the Suffragette and Feminist movements of the early 20th century as well as for women standing up for themselves and speaking their truths today. Artemis may not be a name readily on women’s lips anymore, but her influence is far from declining.