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Category Archives: Mythology

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The myth of Jason and the Argonauts

by July 16, 2019

Imagine a group of superheroes, each with their own special power, traveling around on wild, improbable adventures. There is the guy who can fly, another with super strength and yet another fellow with a secret, unbeatable weapon. And of course there is also the captain of the team, usually an “all around good guy” who’s almost an everyman… if it wasn’t for his quick-witted thinking and problem solving.
This is the Argonauts, a fantastic ancient Greek gang, complete with a cool name and trusty boat to speed them on their way.
myth of jason and the argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts

The main man leading the group is Jason. In his cadre of killers are famous myth makers such as the Boreads (sons of Boreas, the North Wind) who could fly, Heracles, Philoctetes, Peleus, Telamon, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Atalanta, and Euphemus.
Their mission? To help Jason take his rightful place as king. To accomplish this quest, however, the band of heroes must fetch the golden fleece…. which is hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never sleeps.
Back up a minute.. you might say. A golden fleece? A displaced price? A fire breathing dragon? How did this all happen in the first place? How did our greek myth get to this fantastic junction point, filled with monsters, martyrs and missions?
It began, like many great stories, with a power struggle. Not pleased at being second to the throne, our stereotypical baddie, Pelias, killed his half-brother and rightful king, Aeson. Not only that, Pelias murdered all of Aeson’s descendents to be rid of his competition.
Jason and the argonauts slay the dragon
After the familial slaughtering, Pelias was still worried that one day he would be overthrown. He consulted with an oracle to be certain and was dismayed at the news: Be wary of the man with one sandal.
Unfortunately for Pelias, the oracle was right. Aeson’s infant son, Jason, miraculously survived.
When the executions began, Jason’s mother ordered the women to cluster around the baby and cry as if he was still-born. Thus they successfully deceived the wrathful uncle that he was not alive. Afterwards she sent Jason away to be educated with the centaur Chiron, knowing his life would be in danger if Pelias found out the truth.
Jason grew up to be a strong, capable man who was determined to return to his hometown and take back his rightful throne.
One day Pelias decided to throw a few games in honor of his alleged father, the god Poseidon. This was the perfect opportunity for Jason to visit. On the way, he crossed a river to help an old woman (who, fantastically enough, was the goddess Hera) and he lost his shoe. When Jason was announced as the man with one sandal, the fearful uncle knew the time had come. Pelias could not kill his nephew, however, in front of all the gathered kings and spectators, so he sent Jason on a misson, one he thought was impossible to accomplish…
The myth of Jason and the argonauts starts with the boat The Argo

The Argo (ca. 1500-1530), painting by Lorenzo Costa

He told Jason this: “To take my throne, which you shall, you must go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Jason happily accepted.
Jason then assembled his super team of monster vanquishing men, and embarked in their famous ship, the Argo. Their first stop? The island of Lemnos, known for the foul smelling, men-killing women who inhabit the place.
And so, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts began…

The Greek Gods of the Countryside

by July 8, 2019

Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena… these are just a few of the names that Greek mythology lovers know, as they are no doubt aware of the standard Greek pantheon, the Olympians. They get all the air time, after all, with their epic tales of love, murder, incest, revenge…and everything in between.
The Titans, likewise, grab headlines with their creation stories… They gave fire to man, hold up the earth, and father the sun, the moon and the dawn.
While these deities were held in high esteem by the ancients, the Greeks also worshipped smaller, kinder, more…natural gods – the gods of the countryside. Not surprisingly, these represent water, trees and beasts. Some of these you will have heard about, but others, perhaps, are a little less known:
1. Pan
Pan and Daphnis

Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis, to play the pan flute, Roman copy of Greek original c. 100 BCE, found in Pompeii

This satyr-god is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and can often be seen with flute in hand. Being a rustic god of mountain wilds, Pan was not worshipped in temples or other built edifices, but in natural settings, usually caves or grottoes such as the one on the north slope of the Acropolis of Athens. Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism.
The worship of Pan began in Arcadia which was always the principal seat of his worship. Arcadia was a district of mountain people, culturally separated from other Greeks and Arcadian hunters used to scourge the statue of the god if they had been disappointed in the chase.
The word panic ultimately derives from the god’s name, as his angry shouts determined victories.
2. Naiads
Painting of Naiad

A Naiad by John William Waterhouse, 1893; a water nymph approaches the sleeping Hylas.

A type of female spirit, this nymph presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.
Naiads were often the object of archaic local cults, worshipped as essential to humans. Boys and girls at coming-of-age ceremonies dedicated their childish locks to the local naiad of the spring. In places like Lerna their waters’ ritual cleansings were credited with magical medical properties. Animals were ritually drowned there. Oracles might be situated by ancient springs.
The Naiads are distinct from river gods as well as salt water gods.
3. Nereids
Nereid Sculpture

Nereid riding a sea-bull (latter 2nd century BC)

Sea nymphs were female spirits of sea waters. The Nereids often accompany Poseidon, the god of the sea, and can be friendly and helpful to sailors, like the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. Famous examples include the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris, sisters to Nerites.
4. Oceanids
Oceanides

Les Oceanides Les Naiades de la mer. Gustave Doré, 1860s

Also called Oceanides, they are the nymphs who were the three thousand (a number interpreted as meaning “innumerable”) daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. The Oceanid nymphs were associated with water, as the personification of springs. Hesiod says they are “dispersed far and wide” and everywhere “serve the earth and the deep waters”.
5. Dryads
Dryad

The Dryad by Evelyn De Morgan.

A tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology, Drys signifies “oak” in Greek. Dryads are specifically the nymphs of oak trees, but the term has come to be used for all tree nymphs in general, or all human-tree hybrids in fantasy. They were normally considered to be very shy creatures except around the goddess Artemis, who was known to be a friend to most nymphs.
6. Satyrs
Satyr and Nymph

Ancient relief carving from the Naples National Archaeological Museum depicting a fight between satyr and a nymph, a theme which became popular during the Hellenistic Era

Also known as a silenos, a satyr is a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse, as well as a permanent, exaggerated erection. They were companions of the god Dionysus and were believed to inhabit remote locales, such as woodlands, mountains, and pastures. They often attempted to seduce or rape nymphs and mortal women alike, usually with little success.

How the Spider Came to Be

by June 17, 2019

Or, The Girl Who Told the Truth about the Gods
By Nicole Saldarriaga, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Arachne

Minerva and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706

I’d take a look at the humble spider. Though spiders may not qualify as the most terrifying of creatures, their inclusion in a popular myth about Roman goddess, Minerva, certainly clues us into what the Greeks and Romans found chilling. I’m speaking here about the myth of Arachne, of course.
Though it’s considered one of the “lesser myths” of Greco-Roman mythology—probably because it’s not quite as detailed as other myths—it still gives us wonderful insight into ancient culture. Essentially, it functions as three different things: a moralistic warning, a subtle jab at the gods, and an origin story.
Before we get into the details of the myth, however, it’s important to point out that—like most myths—Arachne’s story has warped and changed over time, resulting in a few different versions of the myth. We’ll be focusing on the most well-recorded version, which can be found in that great book of transformations, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Painting by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens – Pallas and Arachne, 1637 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) Richmond VA

According to Ovid, Arachne was the beautiful young daughter of a simple shepherd. She took up the craft of weaving at a very young age and quickly demonstrated an incredible amount of talent. As she grew into a young woman her talent only grew with her, and many people gathered to see her beautiful tapestries or to simply watch her at the loom—a sight that was said to be mesmerizing.
However, after years of having her work effusively praised, Arache gets a bit cocky. She begins to boast that her work is more beautiful than Minerva’s (the Roman equivalent of Athena).
Painting of the spinners

The Spinners, or, The Fable of Arachne (1644–48) by Velázquez.

Keep in mind here that Minerva is to weaving what Vulcan is to smithing—she is considered the patron goddess of the craft, yet Arachne refuses to acknowledge Minerva’s hand in her great talent and even claims superiority. As you can imagine, this is incredibly infuriating to the goddess.
So, Minerva does what most of the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses seem to do when a mortal ticks them off— she disguises herself and pays Arachne a little visit. Appearing as an old crone, Minerva warns Arachne that she should not boast so carelessly, and that she should beg the goddess for forgiveness:
“Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.”
Sketch of Athena and Arachne

Athena and Arachne (Antonio Tempesta)

Arachne responds with surprise and rage:
“Weak-minded and worn out by tedious old age, you come here, and having lived too long destroys you. Let your daughter-in-law if you have one…listen to your voice. I have wisdom enough of my own. You think your advice is never heeded: that is my feeling too. Why does [Minerva] not come herself ? Why does she shirk this contest?”
Enraged by Arachne’s impudence, Minerva reveals herself as the goddess (which, interestingly, barely affects Arachne), and the two ladies challenge each other to a contest: whoever can produce the most beautiful, the most flawless tapestry wins. In order to ensure fairness, the contest would be judged by the goddess Envy.
Ovid Statue

Statue of Ovid

So, goddess and mortal sit down to work, and both produce beautiful—but incredibly different tapestries. Ovid spends a relatively lengthy amount of time describing the scenes woven into each tapestry, and for good reason. Minerva weaves a perfectly symmetrical tapestry that depicts the glory of the gods (and her own glorious achievements in particular) in the center, and four separate corner scenes depicting mortals who were severely punished for challenging or insulting the gods. The work is technically flawless, and stunning.
Arachne, on the other hand, weaves a very different tapestry. While hers is also gorgeously worked, it depicts the gods in a very unfavorable light. The tapestry is packed with scenes of gods raping women, deceiving innocent mortals, and generally displaying embarrassing behavior.
Minerva is completely outraged at this further sign of arrogance and insult—and is only angered more by the undeniable fact that the tapestry is perfect. There is no clear winner, but Minerva can’t contain her rage– she tears the offensive tapestry into pieces and begins to beat Arachne with her shuttle (a tool used for weaving).
Spider

The Spider (Arachne), 1884 – Nikolaos Gyzis

Arachne can’t bear this abuse, and suddenly hangs herself. This extreme reaction actually causes Minerva to feel pity for Arachne, and the goddess chooses to bring Arachne back to life—but in the form of a spider, so that Arachne can both continue to weave and continue to “hang.”
“Live on then,” says Minerva, “and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!”
There you have it—the creation of the first spider; but as I mentioned earlier, this myth is much more than a simple origin tale for those creepy-crawlies you find in your basement. The basic function of the myth is, of course, to act as a warning.
Like many of the transformation myths found in the Metamorphoses, Arachne’s story is a reminder to never challenge the gods. No matter the validity of your claims, it will not go well for you—that is a guarantee.
But Arachne’s story is also interesting in that it subtly shows us an unpopular opinion about the gods. It’s no secret that the Greco-Roman pantheon is made up of gods who are flawed, petty, and often cruel. Arachne could not ignore this and paid the price for calling attention to it.
In fact, this myth is much more than just a warning— because in the end, it’s very important for us as modern readers to recognize that even the ancients were well aware that their gods were flawed. It may have been unpopular and even dangerous to express this opinion, but the opinion existed, there is no doubt.
Sketch of Arachne

Arachne and Athena by Lisa Sewards

Even more interesting is the fact that in the myth itself, the two different perspectives expressed by Minerva and Arachne are both actually substantiated. Minerva punishes Arachne for her insolence, just like the mortals on her tapestry were punished. She clearly believes that the gods have that natural right to command respect.
Arachne, on the other hand, whose tapestry displays mortals being treated unfairly and horribly hurt by the gods, is in fact reprimanded and beaten by Minerva.
Because of this, we could theoretically argue that Arachne’s behavior is not truly arrogant. Instead, it’s simply an example of a young woman telling the truth about her world as she perceives it, and being severely punished for doing so—and that is an entirely different sort of warning. One that, as modern readers, we must hope no longer applies today.

Spotlight on Heroes: Achilles

by June 10, 2019

achilles

Achilles

Known From: The Iliad
Notable Quotes about Achilles:
 “Sing Goddess, Achilles’ rage, 
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark” 
 
“For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, tells me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but 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.”
 
The Hero

Statue of Achilles in London

Achilles is the central character and most ferocious warrior in Homer’s classic epic The Iliad. He is often portrayed as being a mighty warrior who is often filled with grief and remorse. The grief and suffering of Achilles is recounted several times throughout the poem and is often cited as one of the major themes.
Achilles was born to the sea nymph Thetis and the mortal king  PeleusHe was raised by the centaur Chiron and taught to be a great warrior. As a young man he ate the innards of lions and wild boars. It was predicted by Achilles’ teacher that he would be a fierce fighter who would kill many men and sack many cities.
In The Iliad, Achilles is found to be in conflict with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. His feud with Agamemnon is caused by the theft of Briseis, whom Achilles believes is his rightful trophy of war. Achilles is so angered that he considers leaving Troy and returning home.

Achilles Laments the death of his friend

Before Achilles can make the trip back, his dear friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Prince of Troy. Achilles is so distraught by the death of his friend that he quickly forgets his thoughts of home and pursues Hector on the battlefield. Achilles finds Hector and slays him outside the Walls of Troy. Achilles then drags the body of Hector behind his chariot as he circles the city.
Achilles is eventually killed by an arrow to the heel from the bow of ParisThis is revealed to be his weakness. He is cremated and his ashes are put in an urn… along with the ashes of his dear friend Patroclus.
Read more about Achilles here
 
 
 
 
 

Narcissus: How Vanity can be Evil

by June 3, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Even from a very young age Narcissus was unrivaled in two things: his stunning natural beauty and his… what’s the word? oh yes! – narcissism.
Or self-love or vanity, or however you wish to describe it. It is this fatal flaw with which Narcissus has become associated.
However, his personality was more far complex than we think. He was not simply a preening, strutting peacock, but a darker and dirtier creature.
Like Don Giovanni, Dorian Gray and Jay Gatsby he seems appetitive, cruel and capricious and is justly punished for the damage his misdemeanors inflict.
Echo, a blabbermouth nymph cursed by Hera to only be able to parrot the words of others, was madly in love with Narcissus. Upon following him into the forest and engineering a romantic situation, Narcissus told her “I will die before you ever lie with me”
To which the poor spurned nymph could only chokingly plead “Lie with me”.
Narcissus left her to rot in the glen, slowly decaying until all that was left of her was a voice.
Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus

This was how he lived his life. Anyone who wished to love him was cast aside without a thought; certainly without a kind one.
On another occasion Narcissus sent a sword to his eagerest suitor, Ameinias.
Ameinias promptly came round to the house of his unrequited love and killed himself on his doorstep, calling on the gods for vengeance as he did so (c.f. fictionalized Servilia in HBO’s Rome).
His prayers were answered by Artemis, who made Narcissus fall deeply into a love that was doomed never to be consummated.
At Donacon in Thespia, Narcissus stopped to drink at a perfect, clear pool. So undisturbed was the water that he saw in it an exact image of himself.
Trying to kiss and caress this beautiful boy, Narcissus quickly realized the mistake he had made. However, the damage had been done, he was in love.
Narcissus Vain Evil

Narcissus looking at his reflection

He lay staring at the pool for hours on end. According to Ovid, this is how he died, trapped in the eyes of the one he loved, who he could never have and never leave. In this way he reduced away to nothing in the same manner as Echo.
However, an earlier account by Parthenius saw him consumed with anguish and torment. The illogical mania of the lovelorn washed over him, tapered only by the knowledge he would always love himself; always remain true.
In his despair, Narcissus plunged a dagger into his perfectly contoured chest.
Echo, looking on, uttered a brief eulogy outlining the fruitless pursuit of loving one so doomed by his own beauty.
Narcissus Flower

Narcissus Flower

From the blood-soaked ground sprang forth the white narcissus. From this, it was said, an unguent could be made that had properties to both heal and harm, to cause pleasure and pain.
All that was left of Narcissus was a beautiful flower and a dangerous narcotic, terrible and tempting in equal measure.

The Sirens: A Symbol of Fear

by May 22, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sirens with Odysseus

Odysseus and the Sirens, an 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse

“For with their high clear song, the Sirens bewitch him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the moldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones.” Odyssey. 12: 39-54
The elusive Sirens of the Aegean have been cornerstone characters in Greek mythology since the 7th century BCE. The two Sirens (sometimes three), Scylla and Charybidis reside in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily- a common passage in the ancient World for ships conducting trade, expeditions, and contacts with the Central Mediterranean powers. Having prominent scenes in the Odyssey and the Argonautika, and being heavily featured in vase paintings in the Aegean, Italy, and Sicily, the Sirens are well-known to us today.
Beautiful singing, captivating, fatal women of the sea permeate even children’s material, like The Little Mermaid…but, these half bird, half woman creatures are more complex than we may think at first glance.
The Origin of Sirens
Siren Statue

Attic funerary statue of a Siren, playing on a tortoiseshell lyre, c. 370 BC

Like most mythical creatures, the origin of the Sirens is unknown. Their parentage may come out of Gaia, Phorcys, Achelous, Sterope, and/or one of the Muses. Their concept in mythical terms is thought to be of eastern origin, brought over to Greece during the Orientalizing period when artistic motifs, themes, and ideas were adopted from Syria and Assyria.
Some scholars have referred to the Sirens as ‘Soul-Birds” while others have considered them “other world enchantresses.” These soul-birds, an idea put forth by Georg Weicker, were essentially representations of the souls of the dead, who resided in the underworld. The Sirens then, acted as tests to seafarers traveling the dangerous straits, failure of which resulted in death.
Siren Vase

Miniature terracotta squat lekythos (oil flask) with siren. Culture: Greek, Attic

The Form of Sirens
The form of the Sirens, in both literature and art, is relatively consistent: the body of a bird, the head of a woman and sometimes with human arms. Circe, in Odysseus 12 describes the Sirens:
“She has a voice as loud as a new-born puppy’s, but she herself is an evil monster. No one would enjoy the sight of her, not even if a god should encounter her. She has twelve feet, all hanging in the air, and six necks, very long ones, and on each is a terrifying head, with three rows of teeth in it crowded close together, filled with dark teeth.”
The picture painted here is not one of a beautiful, seducing figure, but one of a grotesque, terrifying monster that does everything she can to lure men to their death.
Siren illustration

Miniature illustration of a siren enticing sailors who try to resist her, from an English Bestiary, c. 1235

But is the very form and description of the Sirens a personification of the natural environment of the Straits? Some think so. The voice of a “new born puppy’s” could represent a seal, the many feet hanging off her body possibly an octopus, and the triple set of teeth can be a small shark. Charybdis is described as sucking in ships and spitting them out in pieces; a phenomenon that can easily be likened to whirlpools.
So, like many mythical creatures and legends, are the Sirens a way for people to cope with the unexplainable difficulty plaguing this passage of sea? It certainly seems that way.
Odysseus and the Sirens
Siren Mosaic

Odysseus and the Sirens, Roman mosaic, second century AD (Bardo National Museum)

Perhaps one of the most poignant representations we have of the Sirens comes from book 12 of the Odyssey. The episode is split up between Circe’s foretelling of the event and Odysseus and his men’s actual experience. On their wanderings home, Odysseus and his men arrive at the Sirens’ island which is accompanied by an eerie calm. The crew plugs their ears with wax, Odysseus is tied to the mast, and they row closer to the island. When Odysseus asks to be set free, so he can succumb to the Sirens’ song, the crew ties him tighter so he can resist. They are able to pass, enduring the Sirens’ call and continue their journey.
It’s a short episode, but one that offers a great revelation into the Sirens. It shows who the Sirens were, what they did to entice sailors, and how ‘heroes’ can pass such a test.
Representations of Sirens
Sirens Vase

Odysseus and the Sirens, eponymous vase of the Siren Painter, c. 475 BC

The Sirens were a common motif in vase painting, especially in Sicily and Italy. The combination of mythical creatures and Homeric themes was popular and desirable.
One vase, however, stands out amongst the rest. The so-called “Siren Vase” depicts the very scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus is tied to the mast, the men’s ears are filled with wax, and the Sirens are trying to entice them to their demise. It dates to 480-470 BCE and was produced in Attica.
Sirens: From Sea to Prostitute
The representation over time of the Sirens changed dramatically. Indeed, in the very beginning Sirens were shown to be male or female, but the male Siren disappeared from art around fifth century BC. Eventually the grotesque image of the Siren evolved to where their form was as beautiful of their song.
Sirens Painting

Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909

With this dramatic change, so too did their symbolism transform. No longer a metaphor for the sea, the Siren became the tempting seductress.
The Early Christian euhemerist interpretation found in Isidore’s Etymologiae (circa 600) described them as such:
They [the Greeks] imagine that “there were three Sirens, part virgins, part birds,” with wings and claws. “One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck. According to the truth, however, they were prostitutes who led travelers down to poverty and were said to impose shipwreck on them.” They had wings and claws because Love flies and wounds. They are said to have stayed in the waves because a wave created Venus.
It is this final image of the Siren that has preserved so thoroughly in art and cultural references. Just what our modern reinterpretation of this once terrifying mythological monster says about us, and the modern world we navigate, is for the reader to decide.