Skip to Content

Category Archives: Mythology

[post_grid id="10029"]

Hector (The Iliad)

by September 18, 2019

Hector_and_Andromache

Known From: The Iliad

“One omen is best: defending the fatherland” -Hector, from The Iliad
Hector is a prominent character in Homer’s The Iliad, who gains the wrath of Achilles after he kills Achilles’ friend, Patroclus. Hector is the prince of Troy, the great walled city that is under siege from Achilles and the invading Greeks. Hector is often considered a brave and honorable man, fighting to defend his country from ferocious invaders.
Hector is the first born son of the Trojan king Priam. The young prince is born into nobility and heir to his fathers throne. He has a wife, Andromache, and  a young son, Scamandrius. During the Trojan war Hector slays  many invaders. It is told that by the time of his death, he was responsible for the death of 31,000 Greek warriors.
Hector is depicted as a loyal son of Troy who wishes only to see his homeland spared from the invading Greeks, and it is never suggested that Hector has any dark or sinister motivations.  And while Hector often scolds and belittles his younger brother Paris, the man largely responsible for starting the Trojan war, he still fights nobly to protect Paris and all the citizens of Troy.
Vase painting of the war

Achilles and Hector

Although Hector is a skilled warrior, he unfortunately gains the wrath of Achilles when he slays Achilles’ companion, Patroclus. At the time of Patrocles’ death, Hector stands over him and declares:

“I am foremost of all the Trojan warriors to stave the day of bondage from off them; as for you, vultures shall devour you here.”

These words would gain the attention of Achilles. Hector would be pursued by the legendary warrior throughout the course of the war. Hector would finally meet his end at the hands of Achilles outside the walls of Troy. Achilles slays Hector and proceeds to drag his corpse behind his chariot. Achilles retorts to Hector as he dies:

“I would now be inclined to hack the flesh from your body and devour it, such agonies you have caused me”

It is only after King Priam pleads with Achilles, does Hector ever receive proper burial rites.
Achilles with Hector's body

Achilles with Hector’s body “Triumph of Achilles” in Corfu

[Video] Interview on Greek Mythology

by September 16, 2019

Anya Leonard discusses Greek mythology on the Mind Of Veedu Podcast. They discuss the birth of the gods and why there is a patricide them in the origin stories as well as the Theban Cycle. What can we learn from the Oedipal stories and was Freud right? They finish up with a discussion on the Trojan War: Was Achilles really that angry and what impact did the War have on ancient Greek and Roman culture?

Minotaur – A Beastie of Epic proportions

by September 10, 2019

By Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Down, down below the imperial Palace of Knossos, the capital of Crete and home to King Minos, legend has it that there lurks a mythical beast. A beast so terrible, so ferocious, that it could not be allowed to see the light of day. Contained within a maze, and fed by sacrificial rites, it is doomed to a storybook ending.
Minotaur bust

Minotaur bust, (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)

The Backstory to the Minotaur
The tale of the Minotaur has been popular throughout the ages; it dates back to Classical times and has a mythic base. Legend has it that the Minotaur was born as a result of Queen Pasiphae’s coupling with another mythological beast, the Cretan Bull. But, how did this happen?
Back in Crete’s early days, King Minos sought to assert his right to the throne over his brothers. As such, he prayed to the god Poseidon to send forth a magnificent bull, the Cretan Bull. Should the god grant this plea, Minos would sacrifice the bull in Poseidon’s honour in order that the deity would declare Minos’ right as ruler.
Mother and Minotaur

Pasiphaë and the Minotaur, Attic red-figure kylix found at Etruscan Vulci (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)

But when Minos saw the bull and its magnificent breeding qualities, he refused to keep his end of the deal. Angered by this treachery, Poseidon asked the goddess Aphrodite to bewitch Minos’ wife, Queen Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull. Consequently, the Queen gave birth to a child that was both human and bull-like in appearance.
How the Minotaur Got His Name
King Minos, ever the one to make the most of a sticky situation then decided that rather than face the humiliation of an unfaithful wife and an illegitimate offspring; he would name the beast after himself.
The name is translated from ancient Greek; Μῑνώταυρος, it is a combination of ‘Taurus’ (ταύρος in Ancient Greek) meaning bull, and ‘Minos’, or Μίνως in A.G. However, in Crete the beast was also known by the name of Asterion. This is the name of Minos’ foster-father and the first King of Crete.
Minotaur cage

The Minotaur in the Labyrinth, engraving of a 16th-century AD gem in the Medici Collection in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

After the Minotaur’s birth, the Queen attempted to nurse and raise him as a prince of Crete. Unfortunately, the beast developed an unnatural appetite that could only be satiated by human flesh. King Minos sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, and upon his return, he had the craftsman Daedalus design and build a mighty cage that would contain the beast; the Labyrinth. There, near the Palace of Knossos, the Minotaur was incarcerated. He was fed on a strict diet of human sacrifices, which were supplied by the King of Athens as punishment for murdering Minos’ son, Androgeos.
The Death of the Minotaur
King Minos’ son, Androgeos, had entered the Panathenaic festival – an early form of the Olympics – and had won many events in the games. Jealous of the prince’s success, the people of Athens murdered him. Another version of Prince Androgeos’ demise holds King Aegeus responsible, as the King had sent the prince to kill the Cretan Bull, where it was now running amok in Marathon. Androgeos attempted to kill the bull, but was instead gored to death.
Enter the hero Theseus, son of King Aegeus, the ruler of Athens.
Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus Fighting the Minotaur, 1826, by Jean-Etienne Ramey, marble, Tuileries Gardens, Paris

King Minos’ punishment to the people of Athens was brutal, every seven years Athenians were to select seven male youths and seven female youths who would be sent to Crete. There they would be expelled into the labyrinth and left to be hunted down by the Minotaur, who would kill and devour them one by one.
As the third sacrifice approached, some 21 years after the murder of Androgeos, Prince Theseus volunteered to end the debt by killing the monster. He sailed, with the 14 sacrificial youths, to Crete and presented himself to King Minos as part of the tribute. However, he caught the eye of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who was instantly besotted with the hero. As the time of the sacrifice came, the prince and princess hatched a plot to ensure his safety – a length of twine that Theseus could unfurl to prevent getting lost in the Labyrinth.
Down into the dim and stench-laden labyrinth Theseus ventured, trailing the line as he went, hunting the monster that had eaten his fellow Athenians. Eventually, he found the Minotaur, combat ensued, and using his father’s sword, Theseus slew the monster before returning to the surface victorious. Theseus and Ariadne then fled Crete, leaving the Queen bereft and the King without retribution.
Ariadne and Theseus

Ariadne and Theseus by Jean-Baptiste Regnault

The Minotaur’s Legacy
The story of the Minotaur has permeated throughout history and has continued to influence many artists throughout the ages. Most notably, the Minotaur appears in Dante’s Inferno when Virgil guides Dante as they prepare to enter the seventh circle of hell. Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Gabriel Rossetti also wrote concerning the Minotaur. Picasso, Dali, and Rivera have also featured the beastie in surrealist artworks.
So, was the Minotaur real, or is it just a myth? This is something we’ll never be able to 100% confirm or deny. However, it’s worth remembering that the Minotaur had another name, Asterion. He was named after his foster-grandfather and Crete’s first king, Asterion I. Prince Asterion was the son of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae and his name means ‘starry’.

Minotaur, by George Frederick Watts

It is entirely plausible that Asterion may have suffered from a medical condition that manifested in a facial deformity, giving him a bull-like appearance. Some coins that were minted at Knossos from the fifth century bore the resemblance of a kneeling bull, and had a star-rosette in the centre – a symbol for Asterion. Perhaps, this was ancient Crete’s way of acknowledging its mythic son.

Morpheus: The God of Dreams

by August 28, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Mythology often personifies aspects of nature and life, transferring these elements into gods. It should be no surprise then that our state of repose – something we do for a third of our life – is no exception. In the Greek world, the god of dreams was Morpheus and in some stories and fables he is also associated with sleep or unconsciousness.
He was the son of the god of Sleep, Hypnos, and his mother was Pasithea, the goddess of relaxation but also paradoxically of hallucinations. Moreover, his grandmother was Nyx, the fearsome deity of Night. All of these ‘gods’ contribute and culminate in the characteristics that we associate with dreaming.
Morpheus Sleeping

A painting of Morpheus sleeping in his cave, by Jean-Bernard Restout

Morpheus: The Dream-maker
Hypnos had many children, but he selected Morpheus to be the god of Dreams because of his uncanny ability to assume forms and mimic living beings.
Morpheus was assisted by the Oneiroi (Greek for Dreams) who were all his brothers. They helped him to create the dreams of humans. One sibling, Icelus, made the dreams seem real, while another, Phobetor, was responsible for phobic or terrifying dreams. Then Phantasus, the third brother, created fantastic and surreal dreams. Morpheus was their leader. As a result, he ensured that he alone oversaw the dreams of monarchs and heroes. Moreover, he could even appear to the Gods in Olympus. Unlike his brothers, all of Morpheus’ dreams were true and many prophetic.
Asleep with his half brother

The god of sleep and his half-brother death, by John William Waterhouse

Morpheus is derived from the Greek for ‘form’ or ‘shape’. He came to people in sleep and assumed the forms that people dreamt. Morpheus was an artist of dreams, he could shape images and visions and make them seem alive. He could perfectly imitate a person, their voice, their walk, mannerism, and moods. There was one limitation to Morpheus; he could only transform himself into a male figure.
In the arms of Morpheus
The Ancient Greeks had a saying regarding the ‘arms of Morpheus’. When in the embrace of the god, an individual would enjoy deep, peaceful sleep; they would also dream. These were dreams about the future and upcoming events.
Morpheus did not merely make people dream of simple and everyday things. He was doing so much more. Morpheus was a messenger of the gods and he was transmitting, through dreams, messages from the divinities. The Greeks, and later the Romans, believed that many dreams were portents and omens. As a result, the god of dreams was a very important figure in the classical world and was highly revered.
In the arms of Morpheus

A 19TH Century painting of a girl in the arms of Morpheus

Messenger of the Gods
Morpheus was a winged being. He had two wings on his back that allowed him to travel great distances and at great speed. This allowed him to visit so many bedrooms at night. These wings were a gift from his uncle, Thanthos, the god of Death and one of the most powerful of all the ancient deities. Some Greeks believed that Morpheus was possibly a messenger of death and that he could appear to predict the death of a person.
The god of dreams was very protective of his family. His father, the god of sleep, enjoyed tricking Zeus, which meant he often incurred the wrath of the king of gods. Morpheus would carry Hypnos to safety to a place known to the Greeks as the Dream World.
Dreamworld

Fresco in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence: Charon’s boat, the sleep of Night and Morpheus by Luca Giordano (1684–1686)

The Dream World of Morpheus
The place where Morpheus and his family lived was known as the Dream World of Morpheus. Here the god of sleep, his wife and their many children lived. When not appearing to humans in the form of dreams, Morpheus would sleep. A lot. According to the stories, his bedroom was a cave and it was filled with poppy seeds. This was used in ancient times to produce primitive pain killers, which caused drowsiness. The drug morphine is derived from Morpheus.
The only entrance to the world was through the Gates of Morpheus. The River of Forgetfulness and the River of Oblivion, two characteristics of sleep and dreams, were found in Morpheus’ Dream World. The realm of dreams was guarded by two monsters who would appear when any man or god came close to the rivers. However, the Olympian Gods, such as Apollo and Zeus, were allowed to enter the Dream World of Morpheus.
Morpheus: Minor but Powerful
Morpheus was among the busiest of the Gods, as he was constantly forming dreams for men and deities. In most version of the myths, he did not have a partner like most of the other gods, presumably because he was too busy. Some interpretations of the myth have him as the husband of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and another messenger of the Gods.
Morepheus and Iris

Morpheus awakening as Iris draws near by René-Antoine Houasse (1690)

Morpheus was one of the minor gods, but he was very powerful. This is because he personified the importance of dreams in life and their often hidden messages and insights. The myth of Morpheus allowed the Greeks and Romans to understand dreams and the role that they play in life. The god of dreams still fascinates writers to this day. A character in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, Sandman often assumes the name of the deity, and perhaps most famously, the character Morpheus in the Matrix was inspired by the son of Hypnos.

Electra – Powerful or Pathetic?

by August 25, 2019

It was the fifth century Athenian tragedians who recognised the brutal power of the Electra story. Despite being little more than a footnote to Homer, this torrid tale of a sister and brother (Orestes) taking revenge their mother (Clytemnestra) for the murder of their father (Agamemnon) is rich in dramatic content. In particular, Electra herself is a playwright’s dream: wronged, bitter, wrathful, erudite, hysterical, pathological, dangerous, righteous and female.
This may well be the reason why we have full, extant plays about her by Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus.
Electra

Electra

Euripides tackles her story in Electra, Sophocles in… Electra, and Aeschylus in a play called, of course…[ahem]… The Choephori. However, we’ll refrain from calling him a spoil-sport as his was the first of the three interpretations.
The Choephori of Aeschylus, part of his classic Orestria trilogy, was performed forty years before the dramas of the other two. It was seen as a benchmark for theatrical excellence, an intimidating marker thrown down to any young pretender.
It isn’t clear if Sophocles or Euripides were first in reinventing this tale of manic trauma, but both men were far more akin in their depictions of Electra than that of the old master.
Whilst the Electra of Aeschylus is provocative, hostile and vengeful, she shows these attributes passively, often by proxy through her brother Orestes. She worships her dead father, but knows her place as a woman in the social and heroic order.
Orestes and Electra

Orestes and Electra

Her calls for revenge are real, but they obliquely fall short of inciting murder: “blood must match blood, and wrong with wrong” [473] is the closest she gets to anything like real participation. In fact, once the action begins in earnest, we see no more of her and the dirty work is left to Orestes.
Electra, as seen by Sophocles and Euripides, was a little bit different. Their treatment of her was not only brave, but also dangerous and necessary.
Rehashing a classic is always fraught with peril. The audience knows the story backwards. They want justice to be done to the ‘original’, but they need something fresh and new to keep them in their seats.
Orestes

Orestes chased by the furies

Sophocles shows Electra going through a process of willful over-mourning for Agamemnon. This would have been sickening for a Greek audience as, for them, mourning wasn’t merely the stages of coming to terms with emotions, but a codified, public display of religious rites.
He portrays her as a lovelorn widow, not as a bereaved daughter. It is from this depiction that Carl Jung developed the “Electra Complex”, the feminine version of the more famous Oedipal one.
Hubris and incest are rife in Sophocles’ Electra. They require the context of the time to be fully comprehended, but he undoubtedly succeeded in taking a play about matricide and burdening it yet further with sin and shame that would have caused many a furtive glance over the family breakfast table.
Euripides, the enfant terrible, could not resist going a step further. But what could possibly go further than allusions to incest? For the ancient Athenians it would be an inversion of the gender roles.
Euripides Greek Tragedy

Bust of Euripides

Euripides emasculates Orestes in front of the Athenian crowd. The great heroic Orestes, a hero with links to Athens!
It is typical of Euripides to distort and degrade, reverse and revile. Little boys in the street ‘playing’ myths would cry “I’ll be Orestes and you be Aegisthus” “No! I’LL be Orestes and YOU Aegisthus”. After Euripides was through with them, they wouldn’t even know which way round to hold the blade.
It is this Electra, this wild and willful woman, who goes beyond the one previously depicted. Sophocles’ Electra rejects femininity, and thus the fabric of social order, but only in words, not in deeds: “Call me what you will – vile, brutal, shameless” [606].
The Electra of Euripides is wild and volatile, a confusion of extremes, not to mention a spouse of a poor and pathetic peasant.
However, it is not these that make her so low, so base, so… Euripidean.
It is her intelligence and with it her challenge to the status quo. A challenge which would make every Athenian with a strong wife sit slightly less comfortably in his seat.
With this Electra, Euripides directly mocks Aeschylus as a technical student of theatre who never bothered to study human psychology.
Vase of Elextra

Orestes, Electra and Hermes at the tomb of Agamemnon, lucanian red-figure pelike, c. 380–370 BC, Louvre (K 544)

In Aeschylus’ The Choephori, Electra identifies her long lost brother through his (and her) similar hair, footprint and his baby clothes. Recognition scenes were not merely well-established, but more or less demanded by the Athenian public.
Euripides is ruthless in his dismissal of such trite conventions:

“You’ll find many with similar hair who are not of the same blood” [532] “brother’s and sister’s feet would not be of the same size” [538] “He wouldn’t now be wearing the same cloak he had in infancy” [570]

True, Euripides may have simply been hoping to gain a cheap laugh from an eager and merry audience. However, it would absolutely be true to his character if he were actually attempting to break the rigid structure of Greek theatre, not in its mechanics, but in its humanity and emotion.
He wanted to scream to his public that this was not a princess seeking vengeance, but a woman in pain. A brilliant, damaged, vulnerable, destructive vehicle of righteousness. A woman… No! A person prepared to inflict damnation and suffer eternal scorn. A vessel welling with the rage of love that never had the opportunity to be unrequited.
She is the killer.
Orestes dared not look, he held his cloak over his eyes like a little girl afraid of a storm [1222]. It was Electra’s hand, the hand of power, that clasped that of her brother as the blade slid jaggedly into their mother’s throat.
Orestes is a frail and fragile figure. A pathetic excuse for a man, for a hero, and for a Greek.
It is Electra who restores honour to her household, who butchers the unworthy parent in cold, but worthy blood.
Elextra

Electra and Orestes, from an 1897 Stories from the Greek Tragedians, by Alfred Church

Men of Athens were comfortable with stories of murder, incest, hate and hubris. These were common sins. Common enough that nobody needed to debate their evil and illegality. However, the idea that a dominant woman, a crazed-genius, wanton-virgin, bile-inducing paradox of a creature could be in their midst, if only theatrically?
That was too much to take.
That was really worth being worried about.
That was really just typical of Euripides.

Agamemnon and The Cursed House of Atreus

by August 18, 2019

Agamemnon, was the first of a trilogy of plays (the Oresteia), performed back to back during the Great Dionysia of 458BC; it focused on two generations of ‘The Cursed House of Atreus’. Regular readers will be well-aware of the bad blood flowing through, and often out of, the members of this unfortunate dynasty.
Agamemnon and The Cursed House of Atreus

The Cursed House of Atreus

Tantalus (grandfather of Atreus) founded this woeful household of parricide, infanticide, cannibalism, incest and hubris. His sins that doomed his descendants? Not merely stealing from the gods, but also serving them his murdered son, Pelops for dinner.
His punishment? Eternal hunger and thirst in the darkest recesses of the underworld (Tartarus) and a bloodline with filth in its veins.
Aeschylus‘ trilogy begins three generations later. By its end, the family’s seemingly perpetual cycle of hubris and nemesis, sin and vengeance, betrayal and blood will have drawn to a close.
However, there was plenty to get through before then, starting with the Agamemnon.
Agamemnon, (great-grandson of Tantalus) has returned from leading the Greeks to victory in the Trojan War and is greeted at the door by his ‘loving’ wife Clytemnestra. From this moment on we witness what has, for her, been years in the planning: the total destruction of Agamemnon.
clytemnestra

clytemnestra

Describing Clytemnestra as ‘loving’ is not facetious. Her strength of hate is borne from her strength of love, what we know as philos-aphilos. Clytemnestra’s hate for Agamemnon overtook/replaced her love for him when he killed their daughter Iphigenia in a religious sacrifice (without which the Greeks couldn’t have sailed to Troy).
Any lingering doubt she may have had is extinguished when she sees her husband arriving home after ten years away bearing, not flowers, tears and apologies, but a royal concubine, Cassandra.
Thus her possible motives for wanting to kill Agamemnon are:
  • vengeance for her murdered daughter
  • feelings for her new lover (Agamemnon’s cousin, Aegisthus)
  • jealously of Cassandra
  • the curse of The House of Atreus (which she frequently invokes)
  • possible madness
The last reason is the only one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Although the Chorus say to her “the red act drives the fury, within your brain”, she is, initially, remarkably cold and calculating; single and bloody-minded, but certainly not insane.
This clarity of purpose is what aids her in tricking Agamemnon into the hubristic act of entering the house on purple tapestries.
Purple was an expensive dye obtained from the murex shellfish. To walk on tapestries of this colour was an oriental excess, insulting towards the gods, not worthy of a Greek hero.
As Philip Vellacott put it: “to a Greek the essence of piety was humility, the conscious acknowledgement that the gods are greater than man, and that man’s greatness is held by their sufferance”.
Despite his initial reluctance, Clytemnestra convinces Agamemnon to commit what he knows is an impious act. She does this through a subtle reference to his sacrifice of Iphigenia:
“Might you have vowed to the gods, in danger, such an act?”
Then by appealing to his ego as the vanquisher of the King of Troy:
“Imagine Priam conqueror: what would he have done?”
And finally, brilliantly, by asking that he humour the whim of a ‘foolish’ woman:
“Yield! You are victor: give me too my victory.”
Her success in dialogue and trickery put her in the ascendancy over Agamemnon who is not only guilty in the eyes of the gods, but has also shown to his citizens that he is doomed by his own arrogance, by his god-like behaviour.
Nor is this a one-off. He has taken Cassandra as his concubine when she had previously refused the advances of the mighty Apollo. It’s almost as if Agamemnon is wearing a ‘What Would Zeus Do’ wristband which he consults before each of his foolish and despicable acts.
As Agamemnon steps foot on the tapestries, Clytemnestra lets out a “prolonged, triumphant cry”.
Agamemnon’s fate is sealed.
Death of Agamemnon

Death of Agamemnon

All that remains is the manner of his death which, although just, still manages to sicken and disturb. Clytemnestra murders her husband in his bath. Though ‘murder’ is not quite accurate, she sacrifices him, much as he had sacrificed Iphigenia:
“I gave a third and final blow, my thanks for prayers fulfilled, to Zeus.”
More disturbing still is her mania at the point of triumph:
“With cough and retch there spurted from him bloody foam in a fierce jet, and spreading, spattered me with drops of crimson rain”.
This is not a chronicle of a horror, or even victorious crowing, but feels more like Clytemnestra revelling in a disturbing and distasteful orgasm of blood: “while I exulted as the sown cornfield exults drenched with the dew of heaven when buds burst forth in Spring.”
Lust and blood-lust are intermingled to such an extent that they sully and demean the justice of vengeance. Especially in regard to the fact that she has, quite arbitrarily, decided to execute Cassandra too:
“He – as you see him; she first, like the dying swan, sang her death-song, and now lies in her lover’s clasp. Brought as a variant to the pleasure of my bed, she lends an added relish now to victory.”
This is the key question repeatedly raised in the Agamemnon: ‘What is justice’?
We can comprehend that Clytemnestra is just in killing Agamemnon, but not Cassandra. Likewise she is unjust in marrying Aegisthus, as this will disinherit her son, Orestes.
Aegisthus goes on to show a further injustice when he tries to kill the Chorus, only to be stopped by Clytemnestra:
“Stop, stop, Aegisthus, dearest! No more violence!”
Whatever the justice of the piece, there is no doubt the figure of Agamemnon lying dead in the bath; cuckolded, outsmarted, impious, naked and helpless is an entirely pathetic and unheroic end for the victorious commander of the Trojan War.
“Agamemnon and The Cursed House of Atreus” was written by Ben Potter