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Category Archives: Mythology

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From God of the Sea to Maserati: The Legacy of Poseidon

by November 20, 2019

Poseidon, the notorious Greek god of the sea (though he was also god of earthquakes, storms, and horses) has been held in high esteem over the millennia. The Romans recast him as the god Neptune, retaining his dominion over the sea. In Bologna, Italy, during the 16th century, the Fountain of Neptune was erected, becoming an iconic symbol of the city and remains so to this day.
However, us moderns might be most familiar with Poseidon through the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, where Poseidon is cast as Percy Jackson’s father. There is also Maserati, the Italian luxury vehicle manufacturer, which sports Poseidon’s trident as their logo.
This is all just to list a number of ways that Poseidon has been and remains a cultural icon throughout the Western world. But what is it about this god that makes him so attractive, both in the ancient world and today?
Mythological Origins
Poseidon was the son of Kronos and Rhea, and, like the rest of his older siblings, was swallowed by his father until Zeus rescued them all. Once released, Poseidon joined his brothers and sisters in overthrowing their parents’ generation of gods in the Gigantomachy (the struggle between the gods and the giants).
Poseidon vs. giant

Poseidon attacks Polybotes in the presence of Gaia, red-figure cup late fifth-century BC (Antikensammlung Berlin F2531)

With the Olympian gods now in control, Poseidon, Zeus, and Hades all drew lots to divvy up the realms of the world: Zeus got the sky and the heavens, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon took the seas.
Poseidon’s wife was the sea goddess Amphitrite, though, as is the case with Zeus, he bore children outside of his marriage, with human women and goddesses alike. His offspring included Triton, Polyphemus, Theseus, and Orion, to name a few.
The creation of the horse is most notably related to Poseidon. In a popular version of the myth, Poseidon is pursuing Demeter as she searches for Persephone, and in an effort to impress her, he creates the world’s most beautiful animal.
However, it took Poseidon so long to come up with the horse, that by the time he actually did, he had fallen out of love with Demeter. According to Pausanius though, while Demeter turned into a mare in order to escape Poseidon’s advances, in response he turned into a stallion and seduced her anyways.
Poseidon and hippocamp

Poseidon riding on a hippocamp (half winged horse, half sea serpent) alongside dolphins Clay, black-figure, ca. 500 BCE [Source: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum]

The Cult of Poseidon

Poseidon as a god does not just rule the sea, but also horses, rivers, storms, floods, earthquakes, and has a hand in destruction in general. The most notable of his features is the trident, but other items such as a boulder, cloaks, headbands and celery wreaths, are attributed to him as well.
Poseidon’s palace was said to have been near Aegae in Euboea and would ride his golden mane horses and his chariot over the waves, while sea creatures steered out of the way at the sound and sight of his chariot.
In worship to Poseidon, Greeks would often sacrifice bulls, stallions, and male sheep. Interestingly enough, considering that Poseidon was seen as the cause of earthquakes, he was also revered as a protector against them. Since the Aegean is prone to many earthquakes, especially along the coast, many cities bore his name or erected temples dedicated to invoking Poseidon’s continued protection.
The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion is just one of many sanctuaries dedicated to Poseidon. Built in the mid-5th century BCE as part of the Periclean building program, it replaced an Archaic temple that had been razed by the Persians. The position of the temple served as a landmark for sailors rounding the bend into the Attica region, the last sign before approaching the harbors.
temple at sounion

Temple of Poseidon at Sounion

From the Iliad to Today
In the Iliad, Poseidon takes the side of the Greeks against the Trojans. He assists and restores the vigor of the Achaeans to fight and when Agamemnon considers setting sail to return home in defeat, Poseidon is the one who encourages him to continue the war.
Because the story takes place mostly on land, Poseidon’s power is portrayed mainly through earthquakes and is often referred to as the “Mighty Earthshaker.” In fact, there is one Poseidon-induced earthquake so terrible that Hades “shrieks in terror,”

Fearing the god who rocks the ground above his realm,
giant Poseidon, would burst the earth wide open now
and lay bare to mortal men and immortal gods at last
the houses of the dead…

In the Odyssey, Poseidon continues to play his role as Earthshaker. Yet here Poseidon’s wrath is directed at Odysseus, playing the role of his divine antagonist. Poseidon holds a grudge against Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. Due to this grudge, he goes out of his way throughout to make Odysseus’s return to Ithaca as difficult as possible.
In the realm of art, the Artemision Bronze is a famously debated sculpture recovered off of northern Euboea in 1926. The sculpture depicts a god, either Zeus or Poseidon. Since Zeus and Poseidon often appear in similar statures and stances, whatever object is about to be thrown, missing from the sculpture, would be the only defining characteristic of the sculpture.
Artemision Bronze

Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon from Artemision, Euboea. ca. 460 BC.

The problem with the statue being a depiction of Poseidon is that a trident would have obscured the face of the god, while a lightning bolt would have been more fitting to the stance and arm placement. Still, mainly based on the fact that the statue is found by Artemision, whose protector was Poseidon, the statue remains ambiguously classified.
Today, Poseidon is used as an epithet for the power and ferocity of the sea. In the ancient world, he played an important role in both Greek and Roman mythos. The cults that arose out of this mythos erected temples in his honor and made sacrifices in his name. His presence in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the power he is attributed,  serves as a reminder of how large Poseidon loomed in the minds of the ancient Greeks, and why he looms so large still.

Of Gods and Laurel Trees

by November 13, 2019

Next year, 2020, will be the XXXII Olympiad, and once again the world will be cheering for their most acclaimed athletes. But, have you ever wondered why in ancient Greece the winners of competitions were garnered with Laurel wreaths? Well, herein lies the tale of Daphne…

Playing hard to get?

As appears to be somewhat familiar through ancient Greek myths, the antagonist of this story is Eros, Aphrodite’s son and the god of love. Daphne, a naiad daughter of the river god Peneus and the nymph Creusa, was the unwilling victim of a curse placed by Eros on his uncle, Apollo.
But why would Eros do this? Well, to prove a point, of course. The story goes that Apollo made a rude remark as to Eros’ archery skill. Given that Apollo is the god of archery and sport, his opinion would normally hold great value.
However, in this case, all in love and war must have been fair game. Eros, having taken affront to his uncle’s words also took aim and let loose two arrows; one was lust-laden, with which he shot his nemesis, the other with repulsion, which was directed at Daphne.
Once ‘wounded’ by love, Apollo’s gaze fell upon Daphne and his pursuit began. Daphne, of course, was repulsed in being pursued by the god and ran away. Unfortunately, though, Apollo was not to be dissuaded from his infatuation. He continued to chase her, cornering her near the banks of a river, intent on having her despite her refusal.
apollo and daphne

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

In her desperate state and only seconds away from being raped by Apollo, Daphne prayed to her father, the river god Peneus, to save her. He heard her plea for help, and in a matter of seconds, she was transformed into a laurel tree. Apollo’s rejection and punishment were complete.

Love immortal

Does the story end there? No.
What Eros didn’t know was that Apollo’s love for Daphne did not end, even though she was now an elegant laurel. The god’s attraction to, and reverence of, the tree continued. In fact, Apollo held the laurel in the highest of esteems and above all other trees.
Thus, Apollo made a vow to Daphne, that he would use his eternal youth and immortality to make the laurel tree evergreen, so she would live forever. He also fashioned a wreath from her branches, to wear, so he would forever be in her arms.
This act of creativity turned Daphne into a cultural symbol for him, Apollo, and all other poets and musicians.
In time, when the Pythian Games (one of the four Panhellenic Games) were held at Delphi in honor of Apollo, each victor was garnered with a laurel wreath as their prize. This custom lived on, and as the Olympics took over in popularity of the Pythian Games, the honor of the laurel wreath also continued.
Crowning the victor

The goddess Nike crowns an athlete, which she has chosen to win the contest. He does not see the goddess and is anointing himself with oil in the dressing room, in preparation of the contest.

Love through the ages

Since those days, nearly a thousand years before Christ, there have been many votives to the memory of Daphne. There have been at least two temples, Artemis Daphnaia in Hypsoi, and Apollo Daphnephoros at Eretria.
There have been several famous artistic renderings of the story, such as  Apollon et Daphne by Rubens, Apollo and Daphne by Waterhouse, and Apollo and Daphne by Pollaiolo.
Plasterwork from the 16th century in England has also portrayed Apollo and Daphne, as has the magnificent marble sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, by Bernini at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Interestingly, most of these depictions show the moment of Daphne’s transformation.
On a culinary note, laurel is used as a common flavoring for many soups and slow-cooked foods. Most cooks and chefs around the world will be familiar with Laurus nobilis, or Bay leaf, for its sweet and aromatic properties.

Love’s final word

Next year, when the opening ceremony starts, spare a thought for Daphne. A woman who was pursued and used her wit and faith to elude capture, and who was rewarded for her tenacity.
As they award each victor of the games, don’t forget Apollo either, a god who was tricked and punished, but who found a way to honor the woman he grew to revere.
It’s not often you hear of a love that endures millenniums, that despite it being unrequited does not turn destructive.
If nothing else, perhaps that’s what we can learn from Daphne’s story: to hold ourselves to high standards, to have faith in those who care for us, and to resist to the best of our ability what would ruin us.

Minor but Mighty: Ursa Minor

by November 6, 2019

By Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The night sky might seem like a random collection of twinkling stars to some, but to others, the stars create images and patterns filled with stories and legends. These images and patterns are known as constellations, and they’ve been captivating human imagination for as long as records have existed – and long before we started to write things down too!
One of the oldest, most recognizable constellations is the ‘saucepan set’ – sorry, I mean the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or Big and Little Dippers. They’ve been known under many names, sometimes as Bears, or even a Waxon and an Oxherd. Where do all these different names come from?

Ursa Minor clearly indicated. (Image: Star Registration)

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, in turn, was drawing his information from thousands of years of astronomical observations.
During the 6th century BC, The Greeks absorbed the astronomy and mythology from their older neighbors, the Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians. 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.
For the ancients, the stars aided in navigation, the tracking of time, and constellation movements were likely employed to follow 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.
Eratosthenes, a Greek living in North Africa from c. 276 BC to c. 194 BC, unintentionally created the canon of the astral mythos most commonly recognized today, but undoubtedly some of his tales originate from much older skies.
Astral Mythology of Ursa Minor
This constellation has stories spanning cultures, yet has often been connected to its larger partner, the Ursa Major. The academic discussion around the Ursa Minor constellations’ mythos seems to be considerably quiet, especially compared to its more sizable companion.
Ursa Minor and Major

The Greater and Lesser Bears are visible from the Northern Hemisphere nearly all year round. (Image: Amelia’s Amazing Space Adventures)

This collection of stars is most commonly seen as bears, or as the Plow. The larger Ursa Major has been within mythos whisperings for a lot longer, and so the Ursa Minor is not mentioned in the Native American tribes’ mythos of the bear. Instead, the larger Ursa Major represented a bear being pursued by three hunters (the stars of the handle). Within Mongol tradition, the stars are identified as seven hunters or brothers. Tales such as these often include the loss of a star, and it is within Hindu cultural memory belief that the stars of Ursa Minor gradually dimmed through history. For Shinto omenology, a person who is unable to see the dimmed constellation will not live to see the end of the year.
Within Babylonian astronomy texts, Ursa Minor is named ‘Wagon of Heaven’ and connected to the goddess Damkina. It’s from these texts that we see the different names and mythos behind the constellation – yet the sources are rather silent concerning Babylonian astral mythos.
Bear With Me…
Bear symbolism for this constellation duo can have its early origins traced to India. The constellation was known as the seven Rishis, or sages, which has the Sanskrit meaning of ‘bear.’ However, even within Europe dating to 30,000 years ago, evidence of bear worship has been found, including paintings, bear skulls, and artifacts. Furthermore, throughout Eurasian and American cultures, the Celestial Great Bear is often connected to the ancestors of humans and are frequently totem animals of choice within shamanistic communities. It’s believed that the bear connection emerged pre-emigration across the Bering Strait land bridge, indicating an age of Paleolithic, or older.

Bust of Eratosthenes

When the Greek polymath Eratosthenes wrote, the pole star was the third star on the tail, furthest from the body of the Ursa Minor bear. This star is known as Polaris and is the star closest to the celestial north pole that we have even today.
For the Greeks, Ursa Minor was partly connected to the myth of Callisto – a nymph in servitude to Artemis, impregnated by notoriously promiscuous thunder god, Zeus. After her banishment and birthing, the poor maiden was transformed into a bear, and death loomed over her future. However, Zeus felt pity upon her and placed her and her babe, Arcas, in the heavens. (That is one of the many renditions – this is more elaborately discussed in Ursa Major.) Sometimes, Arcas dies with his mother and other times, and he is free to survive in the Arcadian countryside as a man.
Ursa Minor

Artwork of the Bear is common on constellation maps (Image: Johann Bayer (1655) courtesy of David Rumsey)

Another Greek account states that the smaller bear was one of Zeus’ nurses, Cynosura – one of the nymphs that had protected and raised him when in hiding from his baby-eating father, Cronos. Interestingly, the name Cynosura can also be connected to the Callisto tale, as it means ‘dog’s tail’. Some claim that it was her hunting dog, which was killed the same time she was, that was placed amongst the stars.
Similarly, and seemingly connecting the myths, is the tale of Phoenike. This similar-to-Helike-sounding maiden also fell under the unfortunate seduction (if you could call it that) of Zeus. While poor Callisto was banished and punished, Phoenike is instead honored by the goddess Artemis and placed amongst the stars.

Interestingly, the Phoenicians, peoples of the sea who taught the Greeks the alphabet, called the Ursa Minor constellation Phoenike – rather humbly – after themselves; they claimed its discovery and superiority of its use within their sea-faring navigation. It’s possible that the Phoenicians transferred this myth to the Cretans at Knossos, who connected it to their mythos of Zeus being nursed by bears!
Bear to Bootes
Stepping away from the bear symbolism, the smaller Ursa constellation has also been described as the pole star bound Wagon that is being pushed by the Ursa Major Bootes, the Oxherd. Mythology attributes Bootes to another constellation as well, which is down-right confusing. It’s unknown if this is the same constellation just with differing stars, or if the constellation remains the same with a varying mythos. The mythos is muddled, and extremely unclear.

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.

Bootes is also known as the Athenian Icarius, who Dionysus taught the art of winemaking. This proved fatal for the herder, who was torn apart in a drunken frenzy after sharing his new art. His daughter, with the aid of her dog, recovered her father’s body but was so grief-stricken, she hung herself. Dionysus placed her in the sky as Virgo, her dog as Canis Minor or Canes Venatici, and her father as Bootes.
However, the herdsman Bootes is also connected 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 Bootes who attempted to swim away from the Sirens’ call, just to be swept away by Aphrodite to Mount Eryx.
On this mountainside, Aphrodite, in an attempt to make young her Anatolian lover Adonis jealous, seduced the bee-master and birthed him a son baring the name of the mountain on which they had conceived him. 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.
Mount Eryx

Monte Erice, or ancient Greek Mount Eryx, is a mountain of Sicily, in the province of Trapani.

Bears, Bootes = Baffling!
In the end, the tale of Ursa Minor is garbled. This is not that shocking for Greek mythology now, is it? It’s a little frustrating that there is so little information, and the sources are confusing and conflict with each other. To this day, people are aware of the Celestial Bears, even if they do not know why they are called the Bears – they certainly do not look like a fluffy killing machine but do look kind of like a plough.
What do they look like to you? (Definitely saucepans – right?)

Cornelius, G. (2005). The complete guide to the constellations. London: Duncan Baird.
Ératosthène, Hygin, Aratus and Hard, R. (2015). Constellation myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Graves, R. (2012). The Greek myths. New York: Penguin Books.
Kalyanaraman, S. (2017). Ursa Minor Ursa Major Polaris and Saptarishi Bahula Pleiades: Problems of relating Latin names to Sanskrit names. (Unpublished).
Ruggles, C. (2005). Ancient Astronomy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, pp.378-380.
Schaefer, B. (2006). The Origin of the Greek Constellations. Scientific American, 295(5), pp.96-101.
Sogas, J. (2019). Was Knossos a Home for Phoenician Traders?. 10.2307/j.ctvndv598.46.

Perseus: The Original Hero

by October 30, 2019

By Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Of divine conception, saved from certain death, and raised to manhood by his mother, Perseus’ life was never destined to be boring. But just who is the man behind the myth, and how did he achieve such legendary status? Keep reading and you’ll discover just who this hero really is.
The Name Behind the Man
Scholars have discussed the origin of Perseus’ name for years. Some assert that it is of Proto-Indo-European origin, others that it is closely linked to the name of the Goddess of Death, Persephone. But why should a young man carry such association? Well, his name is fitting if Robert Graves’ theory is correct, that πέρθειν (pérthein) means “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”. Meanwhile, Carl Darling Buck’s assertion that -eus is a suffix to create an agent noun, and thus Pers-eus becomes a sacker of cities…and Perseus definitely devastated the world around him as the classical world’s first recognizable warrior.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

A Divine Conception
So, how did he become this formidable warrior? Well, Perseus’ arrival into the world may sound a little familiar. As with many kings of his time, Acrisius, King of Argos, was fixated with having a male heir. Unfortunately for him, the Fates saw fit to give him only daughters. Danae, Perseus’ mother, was one of two daughters to the King of Argos and the only legitimate offspring.
Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi regarding his predicament and was told that the son of his daughter would one day kill him. Incensed at this news, he then imprisoned his virgin daughter Danae in the palace, inside a bronze chamber open only to the sky. However, Danae was a woman of extraordinary beauty and she had caught the eye of Zeus, who then came to her in a shower of gold. Thus, Perseus was conceived by divine means.
Rembrandt's Danaë, c. 1636.

Rembrandt’s Danaë, c. 1636.

In time, the boy-child was born and Acrisius began to panic. Fearful of offending the great god Zeus, he chose not to kill the child; instead he cast both mother and child into the sea in a wooden box and left their fate to Poseidon. Whilst the waves lapped at the sides of the box, Danae prayed to the gods to be spared and was shortly, thereafter, washed ashore on the island of Seriphos. Dictys, a local fisherman, rescued the stranded mother and child, gave them shelter and helped raise Perseus to manhood.
Destiny Awaits
Once Perseus was grown his life took a turn that only the Fates could foresee. Whilst Dictys was a trustworthy man who respected Danae, his brother, Polydectes the King of Seriphos, was less than honorable. Perseus, fearing for his mother’s safety, kept the king from her door. Angered and feeling slighted, Polydectes hatched a plan to rid himself of the youth and bed Danae.
Perseus and the Sea Nymphs

Perseus and the Sea Nymphs (The Arming of Perseus) by SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES (1833-1898)

Polydectes organized a great party and the invitation was more of a summons with an extravagant gift as a requirement. What was the price of attendance? Horses, something Polydectes knew Perseus did not have. He also knew the young man would not offend the king by refusing to attend. To avoid punishment for his inability to present the requisite gift, Perseus asked Polydectes to name a gift he would accept as a substitute. Polydectes’ trap was a success; he asked the impetuous youth to get him the head of the mortal Gorgon Medusa, the woman whose gaze turned mankind to stone on the instant.
The Legend Sets Forth
Luckily for our young hero, Athena gave Perseus information on how to locate the Hesperides; the nymphs who cared for Hera’s orchard and the keepers of the weapons he’d need to defeat Medusa. In order to secure these weapons, however, Perseus would have to extract their location from the Greae; sisters of the Gorgons who had only one eye and one tooth which they shared between them.

Perseus with the Sisters of the Gorgon

Perseus, being an agile young man, snatched the eye mid-air from the Graea and held it ransom for the location of the Hesperides. Once the information was gained, he handed the eye back the perpetual crones. The Hesperides gave Perseus a kibisis, or knapsack, to hold Medusa’s head once he’d killed her. Zeus armed his son with an adamantine sword, along with Hades’ helmet of darkness – which Zeus ‘borrowed’ – so that Perseus could sneak up on Medusa. Hermes and Athena also helped Perseus on his quest by loaning him winged sandals and a polished shield respectively. Thus armed, Perseus sought his quarry.
Into the darkness of the cave Perseus crept. There he discovered Medusa sleeping, viewing her slumbering form as a reflection in his shield. With a swift stroke Perseus severed Medusa’s head from her body and snatched the bundle of snake-hair into the kibisis before fleeing from the scene. The story of Pegasus and Chrysoar begin from this bloody-thirsty episode; both the winged-horse and golden-sworded son were born from the bleeding neck of the Gorgon.

Perseus and Medusa Vase, Attic Red figure, ca. 460 B.C

Now, with the head of Medusa safely in the bag, Perseus set off to return to the island of Seriphos. On the way he stopped at Aethiopia, where he met King Cephus and Queen Cassiopeia, a woman who was not burdened with humility, and their beautiful daughter, Andromeda.
The King and Queen had insulted Poseidon and his offspring due to boasting of their daughter’s great and unmatched beauty that was far superior to that of the nymphs. As such, their land was being flooded as punishment and the only way to appease the sea god was to kill Andromeda by feeding her to Cetus, Poseidon’s pet monster.
This is the predicament that met Perseus on his arrival, and being the hero that he was, he intercepted Cetus and killed the beast before taking Andromeda as his wife. Andromeda sailed happily away with Perseus to Tiryns in Argos, and eventually became the ancestress of the royal family who ruled the kingdom of Perseidae, through her son Perses.
Perseus and Andromeda

The Doom Fulfilled, 1888, Southampton City Art Gallery, part of a series of paintings revolving around Perseus, created by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones

Not forgetting his mother’s plight, Perseus then returned to Seriphos, and discovered that Polydectes advances had become violent. His mother was now forced to hide in mountain caves to escape the King. Perseus sought out Polydectes, and killed him on-sight by showing him the bounty of his quest: Medusa’s head. With Polydectes turned to stone, and his mother safe, Perseus made Dictys the new King with his mother as consort.
With his mother protected and happy, Perseus then returned his magical aides to their owners, and gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who then set it upon Zeus’ shield, which she was charged with keeping. It is perhaps this respect that Perseus showed Athena that ensured honor to Andromeda upon her death; she was placed in the heavens as a constellation, near her husband and mother.

Andromeda Galaxy

Prophecy Fulfilled
Perseus then returned with his wife to Argos. There are several variations of how Perseus fulfills the prophecy of slaying his grandfather. One is that upon hearing of his grandson’s return and approach, Acrisius exiled himself to Pelasgiotis (Thessaly). There, the King of Larissa, Teutamides, holds funeral games for his father and they are interrupted when Perseus accidentally kills Acrisius during the discus event.
Another version has it that Acrisius’ twin brother, Proetus, drove the King into exile after seizing the kingdom. Perseus turns his uncle to stone with the Gorgon’s head and restores his grandfather to the throne. However, Acrisius insults Perseus by stating that the hero lied, Perseus then shows the king the head and the prophecy is fulfilled.
The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The third version is that Perseus did not return to Argos, instead that he went to Larissa. There, at the funeral games, he displayed his newly invented game called ‘quoits’ and an errant ring flew loose striking King Acrisius; it killed him instantly and fulfilled the prophecy.
Now with Acrisius dead, Perseus was by default the next King. But, as he was also responsible for his death, he was unable to inherit due to manslaughter laws and a guilty conscious. Rather than go into exile himself and abandon his people, Perseus swapped his throne in Argos with his cousin’s throne in Tiryns. With both kingdoms then safe under the rule of the cousins, life settled down for Perseus, at least for a little while.
Sadly, Megapenthes, son of Proetus, could not forgive and forget the family rivalry over the kingdom of Argos. After many years of peace, Megapenthes sought out his cousin and avenged the death of his father Proetus. This act of aggression, unfortunately, catapulted the two families into several generations of disputes, battles and persecutions that would eventually leave the kingdom of Argos to a distant third family line.

Perseus Turning Phineus and his followers to Stone, by Luca Giordano

Perseus’ Legacy
As a legacy, Perseus was the great-grandfather of Heracles, by his son Electryon, and became the progenitor of the Persian peoples by his son Perses. He has been portrayed as a rider of the tamed Pegasus, where he replaced Bellephron since classical times, and of course, as the constellation that bears his name that still watches over us from the northern sky.
So, whilst the origin of his name may remain shrouded in mystery, the hero Perseus certainly left his mark on ancient Greece and western civilization at large. Son of the god of all gods Zeus, he protected his blessed mother and was a hero to his nation, and the progenitor of one of mythology’s greatest heroes. Perseus truly is the Original Hero.

Memnon: the Mythical King of the Ethiopians

by October 7, 2019

One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.
Memnon on an Attic Vase

Memnon on an Attic Vase 5th century BC

Origin of Memnon
Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.
Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.
As a warrior, he was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Some stories claimed that he conquered great swathes of the east. He was considered to be a very handsome man and possessed all the masculine virtues. It appears that he maintained close ties with the home city of his father. At some point Memnon married a Trojan Queen, Troana Ilium.
Memnon and Achilles fighting

Memnon and Achilles fighting on 4th-century Greek vase

Little is known about the early life of the great hero because the epic poems based on his life have sadly been lost.
Memnon and the Trojan War
When Achilles killed Hector, it appeared that Troy, without its great champion was doomed. Priam, the King of Troy implored the Gods to help him and his people in their darkest hour. The Gods heard his pleas and told Memnon to leave Ethiopia to fight the Achaeans. According to a post-Homeric account of the Trojan War, the Ethiopian king traveled to Troy with a huge army. This included specialist units and soldiers that all had ‘a terrifying warlike appearance’. He and his men were so numerous that they had to camp outside the walls of the city because it could not accommodate them all.
Memnon and the Trojans attacked the Greeks and a brutal battle ensued. The Ethiopian king was described as riding in a chariot and killing many Greeks. Then in many accounts, Memnon dueled with Antilochus, the son of Nestor. After single combat Memnon killed Antilochus, who was considered to be one of the greatest warriors in all of Greece.
The walls of Troy

The walls of Troy

After the death of Antilochus, the Greek army panicked and was driven back almost to their ships; it seemed that they were on the verge of a complete defeat. Then along came mighty Achilles and he challenged Memnon to single combat. The two great heroes were evenly matched. While the two were both the favorites of the Gods, the Olympians agreed not to help one or the other.
In the fight, Achilles was simply too quick and strong for Memnon. He was able to thrust his spear through the shield of the Ethiopian King, pierce his side and then he finish him off with a thrust of his sword to the throat. With the death of their leader, the mighty Ethiopian army fled in terror. According to legend, some stayed with their king to bury him and they were turned into birds that would remove the dust from their dead lord’s tomb.
Bust of Memnon

Bust of Memnon

One story relates that the Gods collected all the spilled blood of the hero and turned it into a mighty river. On the anniversary of his death, it would turn red.
According to another tradition, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so moved by the tears of the goddess of the Dawn that he raised Memnon from the dead and he became become immortal.
The legend of Memnon
Both the Romans and the Greeks revered him. He was the subject of many works of art. Memnon’s image appeared on vases and there are many sculptures depicting the great Ethiopian. Tragically, a Greek epic poem on his death has been largely lost, and we only have fragments of the work.
There are many who believe that Memnon was possibly based on an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some academics argue that instead it was one of the Nubian kings from the Kushite Dynasty, that ruled Egypt for over a century. Others still think that he was based on the great Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep III.
Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

When the Romans conquered Egypt, they believed that many of the statues of Pharaohs represented Memnon. The statues of Amenhotep III, of the 18th Dynasty, were called the Colossi of Memnon by the Romans. One of these statues was believed to have made sounds when struck by the light of dawn.

Griffith, R. D. (1998). The origin of Memnon. Classical Antiquity, 17(2), 212-234.
Cline, E. H. (2013). The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction (Vol. 356). Oxford University Press.

Circe: Justice for the Witch

by September 30, 2019

By Kat Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
If you think you know the story of Circe, the witch of Aeaea and the seducer of the hero Odysseus, think again. There’s more to her story than is widely publicized or acknowledged, but to understand how Circe became one of ancient Greek mythology’s most notorious women you have to go back to the beginning of time.
Circe, Waterhouse painting

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, By John William Waterhouse

Time before men
Back before men were even a twinkle in Prometheus’ eye, Circe was born to Helios, a son of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, and brother to the goddesses Selene and Eos. She is also cousin to Zeus, the King of the Olympians. So you could say that Circe was born into quite a noble family. A granddaughter of at least two Titans and related to the sun, moon, and dawn, big things should have been laid out for her from birth.
Except, that’s where her ancestry gets indistinguishable and a little problematic. One possibility is that she was a daughter of Hecate, an ancient deity that pre-dates the Olympians and whom Zeus honored above all, at least according to Hesiod.
Circe’s other matrilineal probability is Perse, an Oceanid nymph and one of several thousand daughters by the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. Perse is also the mother of Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece; Perses who was killed by his niece Medea; and Pasiphae the Queen of Crete. What makes her lineage a bit tangled is that Perse can also be closely identified with Hecate, a virgin goddess who had no regular consort. Hecate is also listed in some traditions as the mother of Scylla, who you’ll be introduced to shortly.

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

Here enters Circe, the granddaughter of four Titans, niece to the moon and sunrise, blessed by the golden rays of her father, but lacking all the enticements and goddess-given beauties of her nymph mother. Yes, according to myth, when Circe was born she was not what was expected. Instead of being attractive with willowy limbs and a melodic voice, like the other nymphs, Circe lacked all the usual charms of a seductress. Instead, she was short, dark, and sounded like a squawking bird. This is where her name stems from, specifically the Latinized form of Greek Κιρκη (Kirke), which possibly meant “bird”.
The making of a witch
Growing up, Circe was all too aware of her shortcomings. Unlike her sister Pasiphae, she would not be married off to a mortal to rule over humans and bear mythological beasties (see my previous article on the Minotaur). Also, unlike her brothers Aeëtes and Perses, she was denied a kingdom of her own. So, she stayed with the throng of Titans and Olympians and kept to herself.
Waterhouse sketch of Circe

John William Waterhouse’s Sketch of Circe (c. 1911–1914)

It was during this isolation that her gifts were developed and honed. Whether it was due in part to her maternal parentage, or whether it was her fate, Circe’s magical abilities manifested into both potion making and spell casting. Circe quickly gained a reputation for trickery, being ill tempered, and adept at casting spells on those who ridiculed and mocked her. Would-be lovers who spurned her, or essentially anyone who showed her any disrespect would find themselves transformed into an animal without the slightest effort on her behalf.
According to some versions of her story, it is this crafting of the supernatural that ultimately led to her exile on the remote, and fictitious, island of Aeaea – thought to be located off the southern coastline of Italy, about 100 kilometers from Rome. She was sentenced to an eternity on the island as punishment for practicing witchcraft on her fellow nymph, Scylla. Circe had fallen in love with Glaucus, a sea-god, who as the Fates would have it became besotted with Scylla. When Circe’s advances and attempts at seduction failed miserably, she became incensed and in a jealous rage, Circe poisoned the water where Scylla bathed. As a result, the hideous monster was born and Circe’s fate was sealed: life-long banishment from her immortal home and family.
Circe and Scylla

Circe and Scylla in John William Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (1892)

However, it’s here on the island of Aeaea that Circe’s greatest claim to fame is formed. Odysseus, King of Ithaca, war hero of the Iliad and doomed sea captain was guided to Circe’s island as part of his journey back home. Fortunately for him, Hermes told him what to expect, and how to elude her spells and potions. So, when Odysseus landed on the shores of Aeaea, and half of his men met with the enchantress’ wrath, her immense powers were futile against him thanks to an herb called moly.
A different fate perhaps?
Kauffman's painting of circe

Angelica Kauffman’s painting of Circe enticing Odysseus (1786)

Instead of harming her for attacking his men, Circe and Odysseus’ relationship took a different turn. Once Circe realized that she was unable to defend herself against Odysseus’ advances, she instead became his lover for the rest of his time on Aeaea. Now, some would say that bedding Odysseus was the act of a woman whose plans been defeated, that when she knew she could not turn him into an animal – as she had done to so many other mortals and fools alike – she instead used sex to her advantage. But is this truly the case, or did she admire and deeply care for him as a result of his intellect and wit?
This same story that paints her as being malicious glosses over the fact that she opened her home to a host of rude and selfish men. That for a year Circe fed, housed, and clothed them. Circe offered hospitality to those who had sought to violate, harm and destroy her, and the parallel between her generosity and that of Penelope’s should be remembered. What was Odysseus’ response to his wife’s hospitality towards ‘the Suitors’? He massacred them, as a victorious and righteous hero and husband. Yet Circe is condemned for protecting herself.
Odysseus' killing of the suitors

Odysseus’ killing of the suitors

During their union, Circe and Odysseus brought about the creation of three sons; Agrius, Latinus, and Telegonus, all of whom would become famous like their father. However, it is Telegonus, the youngest, who would become the ill-fated offspring that kills his father. Ironic as it fulfilled Odysseus’ fate, a foreshadowed story that he’d been warned of years before. Divine punishment perhaps, for the wrongs the hero committed?
As Odysseus’ time on Aeaea came to an end, it was Circe who gave him valuable insight on how to sail safely home from Aeaea, and how to avoid the island of the Sirens, along with steering clear of both Scylla and Charybdis. Circe also gave Odysseus information on how to avoid punishment should they land on Thrinakia, the home of her grandfather, Hyperion’s cattle. Unfortunately for Odysseus, his crew ignored Circe’s advice and their destruction was assured as retribution, all saving the captain.
Although Odysseus survived the punishment that killed his men, the story of Circe and Odysseus does come to a sticky end. Upon discovering who his father was, Circe sent her youngest son to find his father before returning to her. Unfortunately, that’s where the Fates stepped in, and through a terrible accident, Odysseus was slain. As foretold, Odysseus was killed by his son, just not the one he expected. Where he feared it would be his beloved son Telemachus, it was instead Telegonus, the boy he never met who sought only his father’s love and acceptance. The next time Circe would see her son was when he returned to Aeaea with Telemachus, Penelope, and Odysseus’ body.
Odysseus and Penelope

Odysseus and Penelope. Painting by Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570). Photo: Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

Hesiod’s Theogony indicates how Circe’s fate may have played out from this point. Upon the return of Telegonus, they bury Odysseus’ body and then Circe makes the other three into immortals. Madeleine Miller, the author of Circe, expands on this with another possibility that Penelope and Telegonus become lovers and remain on Aeaea as immortals. After a lifetime or so together Circe and Telemachus give up their immortality to die, whereupon the story is completed and fades into time immemorial.
Circe in History
Since the days of ancient Greece, Circe’s name has been synonymous with witchcraft, seduction, and deception. She’s been depicted in paintings tempting Odysseus, casting spells over his men, and practicing her dark arts to lure wayward men and punish them.
Artists like Frederick S. Church have portrayed her in gentler tones, whilst John William Waterhouse’s Sketch of Circe displays her intelligence, wit, and her animalistic companions. Are these the only artists to have presented her in art? No, Circe’s been popping up in paintings, drawings, and illuminations for hundreds, if not thousands of years. She’s been both muse and subject for many, but sadly she’s almost always seen as a villain.

Frederick S. Church’s painting of Circe

Was Circe really to blame?
This is popular opinion and aids the narrative that permeates much of classical mythology and history, and fulfills exactly what Steven Sora (The Triumph of the Sea Gods) and Sigmund Freud (the Madonna-whore complex) refer to in their works. It is the old trope of women interfering or causing good men to go bad, and Circe’s story is merely one such example.
But Circe is, at least, in fine company. She sits quite comfortably alongside the likes of Helen of Troy, Pasiphae, Clytemnestra, Hera, Hecate, and a host of other ladies who’ve all been labelled as troublesome. Perhaps it’s finally time to view Circe in another light, that of being considerate and generous, intelligent, clever, headstrong and independent.