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Category Archives: Mythology

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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.

Calliope: Muse of Eloquence

by January 8, 2020

Written by Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Sing, O Muse, of the man of many devices…”
Line one of the Odyssey begins like so many in ancient literature, by invoking the muses or gods. It was a common practice to ask, thank, and implore the other-worldly forces for inspiration and guidance in writing and story-telling.
The muses themselves are generally split into two different generations: the “Elder” and the “Younger.” The Younger Muses are perhaps more widely known, as they were often represented on Mount Olympus or in the company of Dionysus and Apollo. Stories, music, and dance were all a part of their entertainment repertoire, performing in joy and in sorrow, as they were said to have been present even at the funerals of Achilles and Patroclus, lamenting the deceased and their honors in life.
It is the Younger Muses, as Hesiod referred to them in his Theogony, that Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry, belonged to. Calliope was the eldest of the muse offspring between Zeus and Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory), supposedly conceived on the first night of the partnership. Calliope was also the mother of Orpheus, fathered by Oiagros, the Thracian king, who caused “stones and trees to move” with his own singing.
Meynier, Calliope

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, 1798 painting by Charles Meynier, courtesy of Cleveland Museum of Art.

Calliope is usually depicted with a lyre, tablet, or stylus, representing her written and verbal talents. She doesn’t usually appear by herself in stories, but with her sisters complementing one another.
Calliope, being the muse of eloquence, is naturally closely linked with the mortal world. It is said that she was the one who gifted kings with the ability to speak with grace and power when they were babies by anointing their lips with honey. In this way, when the babies grew up, they were able to “utter true judgments” and “would soon make wise end even of a great quarrel” (Hesiod, Theogony, 75).
Depictions in Art
As the muses as a whole were incredibly influential in the mortal and divine world, it comes as no surprise that they were depicted at length in classical art. Calliope, being considered the eldest, the muse at the helm of her sisters, was a popular subject. She is depicted on dozens of Athenian red figure vases, mosaics, and sculptures.
francois vase

François Vase, Attic vessel made by Ergotimos, c. 570 BCE; in the collection of the Museo Archeologico, Florence.

One famous depiction is on the Francois Vase, a large Attic volute krater produced by the artist Ergotimos around 570 BCE. You can see her identified by name on the upper belly of the vase next to two horses, Zeus, and Ourania, who Calliope leads the procession with. The other 7 muses are depicted behind Zeus. Seen frontally on the vase, Calliope occupies an interesting position of dominance.
In more recent art, such as the painting by Charles Meynier in 1798, Calliope is depicted as directly inspiring the Homeric epics. While she is not specifically named at the opening of epics—just a general ‘muse’ being used to invoke the ethereal realm—Calliope being the oldest, most prominent, and most associated with eloquence, makes it likely that she was the intended muse.
Other renderings of Calliope depict her in the classical style we are familiar with: flowing robes, a tablet or writing instrument, and austere but serene countenance.
calliope sculpture

1763 Sculpture, Augustin Pajou, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Overall, the 9 Muses continue to be treated as a cohesive unit, operating in pursuit of a common goal. However, Calliope is presented and revered as one of the more prominent of muses, no doubt due to the fact that she is intimately tied to the Homeric epics and feats of leaders. She operates immediately behind the scenes, never far from the action.

History of Mount Olympus

by January 7, 2020

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Mount Olympus, located in the Olympus range in the North of Greece, is one of the highest mountains in all of Europe. Today the mountain is in a National Park but once this snow-topped mountain was seen as the home of the all-powerful Greek Gods.
What Is Mount Olympus?
From the time of Homer, Mount Olympus was regarded as the home of the Gods in Greek mythology, purportedly made by the Olympian Gods themselves. According to legend, the Titans, who were the older gods, battled with the younger gods, the Olympians, for control of the world. When the young gods defeated the Titans, they celebrated their victory by building the mountain. The cloudy peaks were believed to be a screen created by the deities to hide themselves from humans’ prying eyes.
What was Olympus like?
To the Greeks, Mount Olympus was a home that was truly fit for the Gods. With great climate all-year-round, it was a veritable paradise. It was surrounded by a gate of clouds, which was in turn guarded by the God of the Seasons. Through these gates the Olympian gods would descend to earth to receive sacrifices or occasionally intervene in human affairs.
assembly of the gods

Assembly of 20 gods in Olympus, a painting by Raphael

The best description of the home of the Gods is in the epic poem the Iliad.  There it describes a great Palace in Olympus, including the thrones of Zeus, father of the gods, and his wife Hera.  Zeus’ palace was the main structure in Olympus. The tables and other furnishings were all made by the God Hephaestus and they were actually elaborate automatons that would bring food and drink in when required. The gods would meet in the Pantheon, near Zeus’s palace; this was where the gods would assemble before the throne of the father of the Gods. The gods of the earth, rivers, seas and the nymphs would also gather to hear the commands of Zeus and his judgments.
Every god who lived on Mount Olympus had their own palace made of gold, precious jewels, and stones. There are a number of peaks on the mountain and naturally Zeus’ palace was on the highest peak. Many have noted the similarities between the Homeric version of Olympus and an ancient Greek acropolis, which was a citadel on high ground overlooking the city.
Who lived on Mount Olympus?
All of the 12 Olympian Gods lived on the Mountain, including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, and Demeter. All the great deities lived there, with the exception of Hades, the God of Death, who had his own realm and never visited the other Olympian deities.
It was believed that the Nine Muses all lived at the foot of the Mountain. They were responsible for the arts and would occasionally entertain the Olympian gods.
The defeat of Typhon
Not long after the Gods build Olympus they were attacked by the monster Typhon. He was a huge creature and had one hundred dragon heads, who all breathed fire. This monster was the son of Gaia, the personification of Earth. When Typhon attacked the home of the Gods, all of them fled apart from Zeus, Athena, and Dionysus. Typhon and Zeus engaged in a cataclysmic battle, but the Father of the Olympians emerged victoriously. He was able to defeat Typhon by striking each of his 100 heads with a thunder or lightning bolt. Later Zeus cast the monster into Tartarus abyss or buried it under Mount Etna in Sicily.

Zeus fighting Typhon from the 4th century BC Vase

How the Gods live on Olympus
The Gods mostly enjoyed themselves in Olympus. It was believed that they held great feasts, drank nectar and ate ambrosia on the mountain. The latter was important as it helped keep them immortal. When they were at home they would often view the fate of humans. Many of the gods had favourite heroes and humans whom they tried to support. Homer portrays the gods as spectating on the pain and suffering of humans with at best, indifference, and more than often with pleasure. In the Iliad, the gods are fascinated by the Trojan War; some are shown as supporting the Greeks and others the Trojans.
The myth of Bellerophon
While Zeus ordained that no human could ascend Mount Olympus upon pain of death, Bellerophon tried to enter the home of the Gods. According to legend he was a Corinthian hero, famous for killing the monster Chimera. Bellerophon was a favourite of the Goddess Athena and she helped him to capture the winged horse Pegasus. He became so proud, however, that he wanted to join the Olympians, an act of hubris or offense against the divinities. As he was flying towards the holy mountains, Zeus sent a fly to sting Pegasus. When the fly did sting the mythical horse, he threw Bellerophon, who fell to earth and died.
The sacred city of Dion
At the north-east foot of the mountain was the holy Macedonian city of Dion. This was dedicated to Zeus and the other Olympian Gods. It was an important ritual center, full of palaces, temples, and villas. It flourished from the 5th century BC until the Christianization of Greece in the 4th century AD.

Oh Muses, You Sound So Heavenly!

by December 18, 2019

Written by Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around, does it make a sound? What about a musical instrument in the stars? In the evenings, can you hear the eternal whisper of its strings?
When you look up at the midnight sky, hidden amongst several larger constellations, there is the faintly twinkling Lyra—also known as the Lyre. It is located on the western edge of the Milky Way, visible in the northern hemisphere and the Tropics.
Despite its general faintness, it is easy to notice due to its brightest star, the Vega, which receives its name from ancient Indian starlore claiming this constellation is an eagle with partially opened wings. It culminates in the night sky during the evenings of early July.
The inclusion of Vega within its star cluster draws scientific interest to this constellation due to it being the first star, not including the sun, to be photographed 167 years ago. It was pulled back into the limelight when astronomers discovered a dust cloud swirling around the star, which could indicate that an unseen planet is orbiting Vega. If for us moderns this constellation is significant, what was it to the ancients…?

The Vega is the best star to use as reference when finding this constellation.

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 astronomy and mythology from their older neighbours, the Mesopotamians, the Persians, and Egyptians, during the 6th century B.C. 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.
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 not until later that 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 originated 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.

Orpheus’ skill was unrivaled and legendary.

Orpheus, play your song for me
The mythos around this constellation is undeniably Greek in origin. This is because Vega may be the modern academics’ star of focus, but this constellation also houses Arcturus, one of the only two stars mentioned in the Epics of Homer and Hesiod (the other being Sirius). The constellation around the star remained unmentioned in the early works, indicating that the story emerged between the Epics (c.800-700 B.C) and Eratosthenes (276 B.C – 194 B.C).
This does not make the story straightforward. The tale has countless variations just within the works that haven’t perished through time —it really makes you wonder how much was lost. Despite all the variants, it was agreed that this constellation depicts the lyre, a seven-stringed musical instrument.
The lyre was connected, by mythology, to the Muses.
It was originally crafted by the infant Hermes out of a tortoise shell and horns from Apollo’s cattle, each of the seven strings representing the Daughters of Atlas, of which his mother was one.

“For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer”

(Homeric Hymn to Hermes, c.600 B.C, 25)

Apollo, displeased and seeking vengeance, was eventually placated by Hermes after he was gifted the lyre. It was then gifted by Apollo to his son, Orpheus. He adapted the instrument to nine strings, representing each of the Muses, of which his mother Calliope was one. Clearly, there is a pattern here…

Orpheus receives the wrath of the Bacchae, women wild from worshipping Dionysus.

Orpheus’ skill was unprecedented, with tales telling how his songs could move and charm wild beasts or even rocks – but this is where the tale gets twisty.
One source claims that Persephone and Aphrodite selected Calliope to solve their dispute over Adonis. The seemingly logical answer, considering the situation, of ‘each of you have him for half of the year,’ proved to be an unsuitable one.
Aphrodite, enraged at Calliope’s judgement, caused all the women of Thrace to fall in love with Orpheus. In their desperate bid to have a piece of him, they tore him limb from limb. It is said that his head tumbled from a cliff to the sea and beached on the island of Lesbos. The good people performed rites and treated the head well, and so were said to be gifted by the gods at the muses’ arts.
Most sources agree that Orpheus sought out his viper-killed wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld and used his outstanding musical skills to charm the hall of Hades. The god of the Underworld allowed Eurydice to leave with Orpheus, the only stipulation being that he must not turn around to look at her – at all, not once, not even a little. True to the ‘happily never after’ character of Greek myths, the hero turned as he left the darkness of the cave to ensure his wife still walked behind him only to see her fade forever, tragically lost.
The misfortunes of Orpheus don’t end there: during his performance in the halls of Hades, he had unintentionally spurned Dionysus, forgetting to include him whilst singing praises of all the gods.
Lyre project

The Lyre 2.0 Project reveals Apollo playing the lyre made in 490 B.C

Another, more confusing, source claims that Orpheus embraced the rays of Helios, declaring him as the ‘greatest of the gods.’ His conviction to this belief saw him climb to the summit of Mt. Pangaoin— or even Mt. Olympus itself—to play his music and sing his melodies as the sun god began his charioted journey across the morning sky.
This powerful display of piety offended Dionysus. He felt completely rejected and slighted, and thus sought his revenge by unleashing the Bassarids (Meneads/Bacchae) onto Orpheus, who tore him limb from limb and scattered the pieces.
An additional variation claims that Orpheus had simply stumbled upon the secret rites of Dionysus and suffered fatally for his misfortune, while another suggests that Orpheus was the first to love another man and thus was ripped to shreds by insulted women.
In all the various tales of body dismemberment, the consistent claim is that his body parts were scattered across the land and, eventually, gathered again by the Muses to be buried at Leibethroe.
The lyre lacked a player who seemed worthy, and so the Muses requested their father, Zeus, to place the lyre in the heavens as a memorial to Orpheus. Another version claims Apollo had also appealed for the placement of the Lyre in the stars. This was agreed due to Orpheus’ brilliance with the instrument and piety to the deity. Homeric Hymns to Hermes also state that the god who crafted the lyre was the one to place it in the heavens.
Listening to Orpheus

Hades and Persephone listen to Orpheus’ song in the Underworld.

It appears that while the middle of the myth may vary, the beginning and end are ultimately similar. The lyre is always created by Hermes, then gifted by Apollo to Orpheus. It always ends with Orpheus’ death, usually unpleasantly. His death leads to the lyre lacking a suitable, skilled player, and thus is immortalised in the twinkling abyss in remembrance.
All of the variations seem to be connected in different ways, such as the Underworld for Hades and Persephone, and the rejection of Dionysus in Hades and for Helios. Helios is also connected with Apollo through solar deity attributes.
Lyre, lyre, your melodies never tire
The lyre was considered a piece of art, and most Greek arts oozed mythological significance. The musical instrument, which was played similarly to a guitar and with a plectrum, was to be heard during religious rites during antiquity. However, the legendary increase from 7-9 strings contradicts archaeological evidence from 2000-300 B.C.—the strings actually decrease in number, not increase!
The tortoise is not a common zoomorphic figurine found at Greek sanctuaries and were found more in contexts relating to female deities, even when found in the Apollo sanctuary of Argos or the Hermes sanctuary of Megapolis.

Apollo with Lyre (by Dennis Jarvis)

There is an indication that the figurines, mostly made from terracotta but occasionally bronze too, were connected to a Bronze Age cult that used tortoises in their ritual activities, rather than the male deities of Greek myth. It seems possible that it is the ancient, arguably repressed, rites referred to in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes concerning the tortoise:

“Living you will be a charm against mischievous witchcraft, but if you die you will sing most beautifully.”

– Homeric Hymn to Hermes, c.600 B.C, 37-8

The myth of the invention of the lyre by Hermes from a tortoise shell creates an association between tortoise shell and the lyre that sees them become synonymous both in Greek and Latin literature.
The lyre connected the tortoise shell with Apollo, and the animal became sacred to the god, yet it was the lyre that was placed amongst the stars. It’s believed that this connection of Apollo and tortoise is the cause for the metamorphic transformation of the god to animal during the ‘courting’ of Dryope.
Do you hear the whisper of the strings, playing the songs of lost loves and offended gods, eternally twinkling their melodies away?

The Mithras Liturgy and Carl Jung

by December 11, 2019

Written by Brendan Heard, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In 1903 Albrecht Dieterich translated The Mithras Liturgy, a Greek fragment from the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris. Its subject matter is of magical incantations, but with reference to Mithraic cosmography.
The text is thought to date to the 4th century AD, though Dieterich proposed a much earlier date. The liturgy details an initiation ceremony intended to invoke Helios-Mithras, in order to ultimately reveal to the initiate secrets of immortality, attaining the high celestial realm. It is even titled: Ritual for Immortalisation.
The process of the liturgy takes the mystic through seven stages, culminating in enactment of the liturgy. In the first stage, the speaker begins by invoking Providence and Psyche, followed by the four classical primal elements, referred to as “first origin of my origin” from which the speaker’s “complete body” is created.

You will hear nothing either of human or of another living being,

nor in that hour will you see anything of mortal affairs on earth,

but rather you will see all immortal things.

For you will see the divine constellation on that day and hour,

the presiding gods arising into heaven, and others setting.

Mithras and the Bull

Mithras and the Bull: This fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy (third century) shows the tauroctony and the celestial lining of Mithras’ cape.

The second stage involves breathing exercises which are intended to lift the initiate up (in the air) where he can note the divine order of the “visible gods”. For the third he then speaks magic names belonging to “planetary guardians of the gates of heaven” such as Aion and Iao.
The fourth involves speaking the magic words that will invoke a vision of Helios himself.  He is described as “a youthful god, beautiful in appearance, with fiery hair, and in a white tunic and a scarlet cloak, and wearing a fiery crown.”. To which the initiate must present the “fire greeting.”
The fifth stage becomes decidedly more Egyptian, and involves a revelation of seven virgins with the faces of wasps, carrying golden wands, which must be hailed by name. The sixth stage reveals the seven Pole-Lords who have faces of bulls and gold diadems, and these must also be hailed by name. Both these groups represent the “region of the fixed stars.”
The gods of the afterlife are insinuated in the ritual as cosmic entities—stars—the symbolism being that the initiate is journeying among the spheres. The fragment instructs him to declare: “I am a star, wandering about with you, and shining forth out of the deep.”

Helios and chariot depicted on the dome of the entrance hall of the Széchenyi Bath, Budapest.

The final, seventh stage, is the revelation of the highest god, who descends manifest before the mystic. We might assume this is Mithras. He is young and crowned in light, with lightning in his eyes.
It is from him that the initiate receives apathanatismos: a temporary state of immortality.
As an ancient magical ritual the liturgy calls on many elements of Greco-Roman beliefs, influenced by Persian, as well as Egyptian magic, and Mithraism. There is also some scant reference to Hebrew and Christian rituals.
The Liturgy is rare among magical and religious initiations of the ancient world,  in the scope of its culminating request: nothing less than immortality (apathanatismos). Some also consider it a product of early Hermeticism, so named after the Greek “Thrice Greatest Hermes”—equivalent of the Egyptian Thoth. Hermeticism evolved into alchemy (chemistry) which evolved into our modern conception of science.
The inventor of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, had a particular interest in the fragment, and spoke on the topic in lectures and interviews. It had an effect on his beliefs regarding spirituality and his concept of “synchronicity”, or the idea that meaningful connections in the world manifest through coincidence.

Carl Jung (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Jung had no less than a kind of premonitory experience with a patient regarding the ritual, which he referenced as an example of synchronicity in his personal life. Here is a quote from Jung’s 1959 interview with John Freeman.
We have an impersonal stratum in our psyche.’
‘For example, we had a patient in the ward, disassociated schizophrenic, with no particular education. Once I came to the ward and he took me by my coat and led me to the window. Now look up at the sun, look at how it moves, move your head like this and see the moving of the sun is the origin of the wind. Of course I thought ‘he’s just crazy’ despite the fact that case remained in my mind. Four years later I came across a paper written by the german historian Dieterich dealing with the mithras liturgy papyrus. [Which read)] ‘Thou will see how the disc of the sun unfolds, and hanging down from this the moving down of the wind, and when you move your face to the east it will follow you, and to the west it will follow you.’
‘It was not a proof to me but a hint, and I took the hint.’
‘And did you believe in god?’
‘Oh yes.’
‘Do you now believe in god?’
‘Now? Difficult to answer, I know, I don’t need to believe.’
What is extant in the liturgy ritual and the experience of Jung, is the reference to the sun (Helios) and to light. As a centrum both to Mithraism, Platonism, and to ancient religion in Greece, Rome, Egypt, and beyond. Below is a quote from a lecture by Jung on the “Sun Vision” and the Mithras Liturgy, regarding his reading of the Liturgy, as translated by Dieterich.
helios relief

Sun God Helios relief, Altes Museum [Berlin, Germany].

We ended the last lecture by reading part of the Sun Vision in the Mithraic Liturgy.
We heard the invocation of the god, recorded in light and fire symbols.
This sun motif appears in many places and times and the meaning is always the same – that a new consciousness has been born.
It is the light of illumination which is projected into space. 
This is a psychological event; the medical term “hallucination” makes no sense in psychology.
The Katabasis plays a very important role in the Middle Ages and the old masters conceived of the rising sun in this Katabasis as of a new light, the “lux moderna”, the jewel, the lapis.
We find this theme in poetry, in Faust for instance.
In the beginning of the second part of Faust, after the tragic death of Marguerite, in the song of Ariel the following lines occur:

“Hark! The Hours in storm are winging,

And, to spirit ears loud-ringing,

Now the new-born day is springing.

Rocky portals clang asunder,

Phoebus’ wheels roll forth in thunder,

What a tumult brings the light!” 

– Carl Jung on the “Sun Vision” and the Mithras Liturgy
Lecture IX 28th June, 1935
The importance of the sun, itself a star, combined with a religious respect for astronomy/astrology (once one science, same as alchemy/chemistry) is strongly intoned both in the ritual, Mithraism generally, and in Jung’s assessment and personal experiences. Archaic classical thought placed extreme spiritual importance on cosmography, and they felt we can only truly understand ourselves in relation to our understanding of the stars and heavens and their sacred trajectories.