Category Archives: Mythology[post_grid id="10029"]
By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
This month’s Classical Wisdom Litterae Issue is dedicated to the Mycenaeans! Get a subscription and learn more about these fascinating Bronze Age people HERE.
Who were they?
The Mycenaeans are often regarded as the first Greeks. They were the descendants of the first Neolithic farmers who settled in what is now Greece, and they were influenced by the Minoans. They developed cities and kingdoms, and in the late Bronze Age, these developed into a spectacular and sophisticated culture and civilization (1700-1100 BC). Their states were based on vast palaces and ruled by kings known as wanax. The Mycenaeans controlled the Peloponnese in Greece and eventually occupied Crete and the many Aegean Islands. Their influence was felt as far away as Cyprus and Asia Minor. The Iliad and the Odyssey, two of the most celebrated works on ancient literature, depict the Mycenaeans and their wars. Yet in about 1100 BC the Mycenaean culture had collapsed, for reasons that remain unclear. It was possibly due to natural disasters, foreign invasion, or civil wars. Here are some of their greatest achievements…
1. Mycenaean Architecture
The Mycenaeans were great builders and they engaged in some of the largest construction projects in Europe before the Roman Empire. These Bronze Age Greeks profoundly influenced the development of Archaic and Classical Greek architecture. The Mycenaean megaron, or palace complex, were monumental royal residencies that were enclosed by massive walls. These massive structures had porches, a vestibule, halls and arched corbel galleries. These were all elements that were extensively used by later Greeks. The Mycenaean Palace greatly influenced the evolution of the Classical temples and public buildings, which have significantly influenced the development of Western architecture.
2. Mycenaean Engineering
The Mycenaeans were also great builders. Archaeologists have found that they were among the first to build stone bridges in Europe. They were also the first European civilizations that developed flood defences and even terraced agriculture. Sadly, however, much of their engineering knowledge was lost during the so-called Greek Dark Ages.
3. Mycenaeans factories
The Mycenaeans were also the first European Bronze Society who developed large scale manufacturing. These were much more advanced than other Bronze Age European cultures. They had large scale enterprises that made textiles, pottery and metalwork that were exported all over the Mediterranean World.
4. Mycenaean Writing
The Mycenaeans developed the first form of written Greek. This script is known as Linear B, and it was influenced by the mysterious Minoan script known as Linear A. Archaeologists have found many clay tablets with Linear B. The script was mainly used for record-keeping and administrative purposes. However, the Archaic Greeks alphabet was not based on Linear B, but was based on the phonetic Phoenician alphabet. Yet phrases and words from Linear B do appear in the works of Hesiod and Homer.
5. Mycenaean Cultural Achievements
The Mycenaeans had many cultural achievements. Their religion played a crucial role in the development of later Greek mythology and beliefs. They worshipped the first known representations of Zeus and Poseidon. The origin of many Archaic and Classical Greeks religious practices originated in the Late Bronze Age culture. Mycenaean stories played a key role in the evolution of Greek mythology. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both probably based on Mycenaean stories that may have been once recited in the great palaces to entertain the wanax and his court.
6. Mycenaean Military armor
The Mycenaeans were a society of warriors, which is very well shown in the Homeric epics. The Mycenaeans developed a new type of helmet made out of boars’ tusks. They used their considerable metalworking skills to develop new types of armor which were very advanced for the time. The best-known, example of this is the Dendra Panolopy (1450 BC) which is a full-body suit of armor.
7. Mycenaean Military Revolution
Homer describes the Mycenaean armies fighting outside the walls of Troy. The aristocratic elite fought in chariots but the Mycenaean army was composed of heavy infantry, typically armored. They used long spears and round shields. The Mycenaean military equipment and tactics were very effective and probably influenced the development of the hoplite style warfare, which was used by the Spartans and Athenians to defeat the Persians in the 5th century BC.
8. Advanced shipbuilding.
The Mycenaeans were not only great warriors they were also great mariners. We can get a glimpse of this in the adventures of Odysseus. It appears that the Mycenaeans developed trade networks over the Mediterranean. They develop new galleys that were probably based on Minoan models. The Mycenaean ships had seats with rowers and sails AND were steered by triangle rudders. Their ships, which were very large for the time, decisively influenced Archaic age vessels.
The Mycenaeans had many remarkable achievements in architecture, engineering, military tactics and shipping. These Bronze Age Greeks also helped to shape the evolution of later Greek culture, which has profoundly influenced the modern world. Sadly, some of their achievements have been lost to us. Yet nevertheless, it can still be confidently said that Mycenaean Greece was one of the cradles of civilization.
Kelder, Jorrit (2005). “Greece During the Late Bronze Age”. Journal of the Ancient Near East Society: Ex Oriente Lux. 39: 131–179.
Chadwick, J., 1976. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
I’m sure like many of you, I’m a huge fan of Greek tragedy. For many people Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex can be their first exposure to the world of Ancient Greek literature, and the Classical world in general. More than two and a half millennia since its first performance, the play itself and its reputation endure undiminished. More than a masterpiece, the play can be an entry point into one of the most compelling branches of Greek myth: the Theban cycle.
These stories tell the tale of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, his warring sons locked in bloody civil war and, of course, his headstrong, rebellious daughter (and half-sister!) Antigone. All these myths center around the ancient city of Thebes, one of the most prominent and important in Greek myth. The city itself was a real place. One of power and might too: the city defeated Sparta, founded cities, and was a key player in ancient politics.
Yet, the city vanished. What happened? How can a city so important simply disappear? Like the Riddle of the Sphinx, perhaps we can untie this mystery…
Fortunately for us, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge has delved into this fantastic tale in his most recent book –Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. This sensational work brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements—whether politically or culturally—and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.
From its role as an ancient political power, to its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great as punishment for a failed revolt, to its eventual restoration by Alexander’s successor, Cartledge deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the ancient city. He recounts the history with deep clarity and mastery for the subject and makes clear both the diﬀerences and the interconnections between the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history. Written in clear prose and illustrated with images in two color inserts, Thebes is a gripping read for students of ancient history and those looking to experience the real city behind the myths of Cadmus, Hercules, and Oedipus.
Make sure to get your own fantastic edition of Paul’s book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, HERE.
You can also catch Professor Cartledge LIVE at our Symposium 2021: The End of Empires and the Fall of Nations.
One of the world’s foremost Classicists and the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of more than 30 books, Professor Cartledge illuminates the truth about the Forgotten City of Thebes. This is your opportunity to see Paul Cartledge LIVE – and join in on the Q&A – as he tells us how a city can be outlived by its myths….
We hope to see you in August!
Written by John Martin, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
For the nearly three millennia since the Iliad’s creation, its grand story remains undiscovered. Homer’s masterpiece was a brilliant exercise in telling a new kind of story while letting his listening audience think that they were hearing another (more familiar, more easily accessible) one.
The blind poet, as antiquity knew him to be, created a beautiful and powerful work which pleased mortal audiences. But Homer’s Real Story was created for the gods, and meant to be one which only the gods could understand.
The Iliad’s prologue invokes, not a Muse, but an unnamed “goddess”(1.1; see footnote (1) note below). Close scrutiny informs us that Homer himself, with only the most limited help from the Muses, created this imaginative fantasy. In devising his own alternative mythology, Homer the storyteller placed himself at the level of the gods.
The Real Iliad decisively departs from the traditional story of the Judgment of Paris, the ten-year war for Helen, and the Trojan (wooden) Horse. In its place, it offers a far better story that deconstructs and debunks mortal warriors, the gods who make or take sides in wars, and the glory men (supposedly) seek in battle. The great war poem is, in essence, epically antiwar.
In piecing together the Iliad‘s web of secret plans, hidden motives, and discarding post-Homeric corruptions to the text, we discover an Iliad which is not a prelude to Achilles’ glorious early death and the Fall of Troy, but the opposite. Zeus, the greatest of gods, uses the Trojan War as a theater in which to discredit war among mortals.
In a cosmos of venal, self-seeking gods, Homer’s Zeus finally emerges as a picture of what true divinity must be like, and why it is worthy to rule mortals, and be worshipped by them.
Throughout the work, the great hero Achilles has a choice between a Short Life, in which he dies at Troy and wins imperishable renown, and a Long Life, in which he goes home and his renown is lost (9.410-5).
The main subject of the poem is how he makes this choice. From the outset, Achilles is unwilling to fight under Agamemnon’s leadership, instead wanting to lead the army himself. His intentions go awry with the death of his beloved companion Patroclus. However, the glory of avenging Patroclus by killing Hector (only possible with Athena’s considerable help) does not satisfy Achilles.
In an ending concealed in the text, towards which the entire story has been leading, Homer’s own words will tell us how Achilles, as supplicated by Priam, chooses the Long Life and goes home.
The Greek army, unwilling to fight without its greatest warrior, leaves also, sparing peaceful, horse-taming Troy—Zeus’ favorite city (4.44-9). The failure of Agamemnon’s great military expedition gives the world a badly-needed lesson in the futility and folly of warfare. Perhaps that will put an end to so many unnecessary deaths, which make humans, in Zeus’ sympathetic view, the most wretched of mortal creatures (17.443-7).
In telling this alternative tale, Homer offers a devastating indictment of the traditional gods of Greek mythology who, supposedly, caused the Trojan War and all the misery to which it led.
To illustrate how the Real Story is told, let us revisit two well-known scenes:  Athena orders Achilles not to kill Agamemnon, and promises compensation (1.172-222);  Zeus shakes Olympus with his nod, promising to fulfill Thetis’ request that he honor Achilles by helping the Trojans in battle (1.493-567). Agamemnon threatens to take Achilles’ prize, a woman called Briseis. Achilles begins to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon. Athena appears, sent by Hera, “who both equally in her heart loved and cared for [Achilles and Agamemnon]” (1.195f).
Oddly, Athena restrains Achilles from behind, pulling his hair (1.197f). She says: “Refrain from strife, and do not draw your sword” (1.210) and promises that “three times as many shining gifts will be yours because of this outrage” (1.213f).
This objectifies Briseis to a ridiculous degree. How can shining gifts be a multiple of a woman? And if Agamemnon’s offense to Achilles’ honor is so grave as to justify Achilles’ asking Zeus to help the Trojans, how could a few gifts be expected to compensate him? After all, the ages have seen Achilles’ wrath at Agamemnon as arising from his nearly-irreparable offense to his honor.
Hera cares for the two warriors equally. Does Athena? Why does she speak only to Achilles? Why doesn’t she cool things down by also telling Agamemnon not to take Briseis?
Iliadic Athena is neither a goddess of war, nor of wisdom. She pulls Achilles’ hair, like a shy teen-ager, because she is in love with him. She saves Agamemnon, yet perpetuates, instead of calms, their Quarrel. Why? Because she is jealous of Briseis, and wants Achilles to lose her.
Athena will appear, throughout the Iliad, as something like a virgin teenager. She is looking for a mortal man to deify, a man with a savagery comparable to her own, and she will make a mess of every major assignment given to her. The next time Hera needs something from Achilles, she will send Zeus’ messenger Iris (18.165ff).
And should we note that Achilles obeys Athena’s command to put up his sword, but disobeys her primary directive, which is to refrain from strife. Because Agamemnon has seized Briseis, Achilles can take the strife with Agamemnon right up to Zeus. Athena, in saving Agamemnon’s life, has also saved Achilles’ wrath. And without her blunder, there is no Iliad.
Athena, although selfish and inept, does know something about warriors. She obviously believes that losing Briseis should not be a cause of great wrath at Agamemnon (see footnote (2) below). But if losing Briseis is not sufficient reason for the Wrath, then what is? By this early point in the narrative, we should already have realized that Achilles is also angry about something else of much greater importance. The other scene of importance, , will shed some light on that. Thetis heads for Zeus’ house (1.426f), in order to supplicate him. Evidently seeking privacy, she meets him on the topmost peak of Olympus. Thetis clasps Zeus’s knees, and Zeus, although worried about trouble with Hera, agrees to help the Trojans. He seals his assent with a nod, and “made great Olympus vibrate.”
“Zeus’ nod is one of the most ‘sublime’ images of the poem, a moment of extraordinary divine action which emphasizes the gulf between us and the powers that control us” writes Richard Hunter in The Measure of Homer (The Measure of Homer (2018), page 56).
Then Zeus tells Thetis: “But now go back again, lest Hera notice you.” It turns out that Hera has noticed, and confronts Zeus, greatly angering him.
Paradox: If Zeus wanted to avoid Hera’s notice, why did he nod in such a manner as to shake Olympus, which Hera could not fail to notice? (Zeus’ other two nods do not have external effects, 8.245f, 17.209-12.) Resolution: Anti-war Zeus hates what he has agreed to do (and has only agreed because he owes Thetis a favor: 1.393-406). Olympus’ trembling is unanticipated and involuntary on his part. It is a divine shudder. (Later, Hera shudders on her throne, and Olympus trembles sympathetically, 8.198f.)
The power is not in the nod, but in Zeus’ repugnance at committing to a battle in a war that he would like to end. And, whatever Agamemnon may have done to Achilles, the shudder marks Thetis and Achilles as completely in the wrong.
The Iliad proceeds in this manner, and we must follow it, line by line, scene by scene, from first to last, to uncover its deep story, which the ages have missed.
Homer’s masterpiece has long held a lofty place at the pinnacle of ancient Greek and Roman literature. What would the world have been like if Homer’s Real Story—his antiwar message—had been understood? Readers who grasp the Real Story will be left wondering how it could have alternately shaped literature, culture, and even history in the ages to come.
Footnote (1): The Iliad has a very different way of invoking the Muses (2.684 and elsewhere) and they are only consulted regarding matters of simple fact, as “…who were the leaders and chiefs of the Danaans” (2.687). The full line 1.1 reveals that the goddess is Thetis; Homer’s (notably unusual) Prologue is not an invocation, since the Poet does not pray to the goddess.
Footnote (2): Aias, the Greeks’ second best warrior, agrees; see 9.628-42.
Note: All citations from the Iliad are translations by the author.
About the author: John D. Martin holds a PhD in economics and three other degrees from the University of Chicago. He first read Homer as an undergraduate in 1961. Homer’s Iliad: The Real Story is a labor of nine years, constant and continuous, and was completed at the start of the tenth. It will be published this summer with the help of AuthorHouse. The work is a line-by-line commentary, with translations supplied by the author.
Written by Alberto Majrani, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who really killed the suitors in Homer’s Odyssey? A careful reading of the epic poem reveals a myriad of clues left by Homer with a surprising conclusion: Ulysses was not…really Ulysses. He was the expert Achaean archer Philoctetes in disguise!
With this key, the Homeric poem suddenly assumes a logic and coherence hitherto unsuspected. This explains why Homer continues to praise the art of deception: it is he who has deceived us for three thousand years! And the surprises do not end there: all the apparent inconsistencies of the Iliad and the Odyssey that have plagued students and teachers for generations, known as the “Homeric Question”, now fall effortlessly in place. The ancient texts finally agree with historical and archaeological data, fully revealing the genius of their author.
It’s a strange story, that of Ulysses. Is it possible that the King of Ithaca stayed away for twenty years, missing his homeland, abandoning a beautiful nymph who would make him immortal, only to return to a wife no longer young after a dangerous solo crossing?
And when he does return, nobody recognizes him, not even his father or his own wife, so he kills all the pretenders threatening to provoke a bloody revolution, and finally, when he would have every right to a little peace and quiet, he decides to sail away in secret, leaving everyone baffled! All right, yes, it is a mythological tale, but it is not very…logical!
And what if Ulysses was not actually…Ulysses? Let’s examine the hypothesis that the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, had hired a mercenary to interpret Ulysses and to slaughter of the suitors asking the hand of his mother Penelope: the same Telemachus would then cast a poet to tell a fantastic story that could justify all the years of his father’s absence. All this in order to free the royal palace of all the suitors eating them out of house and home — not to mention that if someone had married his mother, Telemachus would have lost his right of succession to the kingdom.
In fact, Penelope was of noble birth, being the daughter of the powerful King Ikarios, while Ulysses was an “upstart” tradesman familiar with piracy and looting, activities which, at that time, were not clearly defined. The claimants themselves were plotting to get rid of him, and he had to anticipate them as soon as possible.
Who was this mercenary? Can you imagine? Think about it…it is suggested to us by Ulysses himself…when he is in the land of the Phaeacians. Ulysses claims to be the best of the Achaeans in archery, immediately after Philoctetes!
As for Philoctetes, who was he? Maybe someone remembers him thanks to the amusing cartoon “Hercules”, produced by Disney in 1997 in which the script writers got a bit too carried away by the need to invent a fun story. They changed the events and roles of various mythological characters. It’s best, then, to refer to Classical sources.
The Iliad tells us that Philoctetes was the head of a contingent of the Achaeans headed to the Trojan War. However, he was bitten in the foot by a snake, a serious wound that became infected and forced his teammates to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. As Sophocles recounts in his play Philoctetes, according to a prophecy, Troy would fall only with the help of Hercules’ weapons. Philoctetes had been a pupil of Hercules and had inherited his bow and arrows, so after being cured by the Achaean doctor Machaon, Philoctetes kills Paris, decisively contributing to the defeat of the Trojans.
Of course! The mercenary was Philoctetes! That explains a lot: he had known Ulysses for some time—that lent itself well to interpret him– he also was a “family friend” and therefore may have been more willing to risk his life in such a dangerous undertaking. He was an extremely skilled archer, requiring a level of training that Ulysses could not have maintained after so many years at sea.
That is assuming, of course, that Ulysses was really equipped with this skill: as the Iliad recounts, Ulysses never uses the bow, even during the games in honor of Patroclus, in which he won wrestling and running competitions. And when he finally does have a bow in hand—borrowed from the young warrior Meriones—all he does with it is whip horses!
Note also that Homer does not say that Philoctetes was abandoned on Lemnos on Ulysses’ orders: this is the work of subsequent mythographers and repeated by Sophocles, who reworked the old myths to build on his story–not very different from the authors of Disney. So there is no reason to think that Philoctetes was harboring resentment against Ulysses or his family members.
The youth of Ithaca would not have recognized Philoctetes, but some elderly people might, so it was necessary to leave the island as soon as his mission against the suitors was accomplished. He had been seriously wounded in the foot by a snake, which would have left him with some obvious lameness. In fact, Homer, without saying so openly, does everything to make us understand that the mysterious stranger limps: he walks slowly, leaning on a cane, is likened to the god Hephaestus, who is lame too. There are many strange references to “feet”, for example the old nurse who recognizes “Ulysses” by his knee injury caused by a wild boar (which is never mentioned either in the Iliad or the rest of the Odyssey, in which the legs of the runner Ulysses are absolutely perfect), a recognition that comes just as she washes his feet. Perhaps it had more to do with the foot than the knee!
But Philoctetes was not content with his substantial reward— i.e., all the precious objects Telemachus loaded on his ship when he sailed off—he aspired to eternal glory! And since he could not reveal the deception, he was lauded as one of “the best of the archers Achaean” by the great “Ulysses” himself.
That same “Ulysses” even alludes — in the poem dedicated to him — that there was someone better than him in the art of archery. His words are something of a Freudian slip, a kind of “Message in a Bottle” launched to posterity, as if to say: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear!”. Homer has left a host of similar messages throughout the poem that guide us through the actual course of the action.
As for the real Ulysses, he had probably died long before, killed in battle or drowned at sea. This can be deduced from the fact that, throughout the Odyssey, the idea that the hero is now deceased is repeated several times. What about the fact that at some point Ulysses descends into the underworld? Or the episode in which his name is Nobody, so the cyclops Polyphemus will repeat that Nobody blinds him, No one kills him? Other messages in bottles, which.. no one, so far, had taken literally!
And again, does it not appear very suspect the extraordinary coincidence in time, that Ulysses would return to Ithaca after two decades, and within hours his son is landing on the same beach, located on the opposite side to the main port?
Also, what should we infer from traditional biographies which say Homer was blind? It could be that the poet was looking for a justification for not recognizing he who passed himself off as Ulysses?
Let’s reconstruct the affair, let’s imagine how could it have taken place in reality. There is a power vacuum in Ithaca; the king left for decades and never came back. The suitors are plotting to eliminate Telemachus and take over the kingdom, so he sets sail with a ship full of precious objects to hire a mercenary (Philoctetes already means “the one who loves to possess”). Philoctetes comes and performs the massacre with the help of the most faithful servants, whom, as the swineherd Eumaeus and the cowherd Philoetius take the trouble of informing us, will be adequately rewarded
The fake Ulysses cannot stay there pretending nothing had happened, because sooner or later someone will recognize him. So he sails off again, leaving Telemachus the kingdom… and they all lived happily ever after.
The Odyssey is not just a fairy tale for overgrown children, but an intricate maze filled with ingenious references that will inevitably escape those who do not study it closely. Quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus–“Even good old Homer nods,” Horace proclaimed– but maybe Homer was a lot more awake than we thought!
This article is based off a new book by Alberto Majrani titled L’ASTUTO OMERO e il geniale inganno dell’Odissea (The CUNNING HOMER – Ulysses, Nobody, Philoctetes and The Ingenious Deception Of The Odyssey) which addresses the Homeric question. As of April 2021, the book is available only in Italian. To request the complete 428-page pdf ebook, which includes 280 images at the price of Euro 6,28, send an email to [email protected] Publishers, journalists, University professors are provided a FREE copy of ebook. The paper book costs 28 euros + shipping (weight 1300 grams). More info on Internet https://cunninghomer.blogspot.com/ (in English) or https://astutoomero.blogspot.com/ (in Italian)
Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible! He had heard of such things, of course, in old, old tales; but it was hard to believe that he had really found one by accident.”The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
When Bilbo finds the Ring in the darkness of the goblin tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains after having lost his dwarves, his wizard and his way, he unwittingly picks up a powerful artifact and a theme of ancient origin.
Magic rings do appear in old tales—some of them in mythology from which Tolkien clearly drew inspiration. In Norse mythology, there is the magic ring Andvaranaut, forged by the shape-shifting dwarf Andvari and Draupnir, which belonged to the god Odin. But neither of these bear much comparison to Tolkien’s Ring. Their powers are too materialistic, making and hoarding gold, rather than the more spiritual and far more dangerous power of dominating the wills of others.
The ring story that may bear the closest resemblance to Tolkien’s is of more ancient origin: the tale of Gyges, which occurs in Book II of Plato’s Republic. In it, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges’ ring, which depicts a man free from the necessity to be just, i.e., free from the fear of punishment. Such a man, he argues, would be foolish if he continued to act in a just manner when he could have anything he wants. The ring allows him to fulfill his desires because it can render its wearer invisible. It is the ability to pass unseen that provides the fulcrum for the examination of justice in Plato’s story.
The Gyges tale is later re-told by Cicero in his ethical treatise, De Officiis:
… Plato introduces the well-known story of Gyges, who, when the ground had caved away on account of heavy rains, passed down into the opening, and saw, as the story goes, a brazen horse with doors in his sides. Opening these doors, he saw a man of unusual size, with a gold ring on his finger, which drawing off, he put it on his own finger (he was a shepherd in the king’s service), and then repaired to the company of the shepherds. There, as often as he turned the part of the ring where the stone was set to the palm of his hand, he became invisible, yet himself saw everything; and was again visible when he restored the ring to its proper place. Then, availing himself of the advantage which the ring gave him, he committed adultery with the queen, and by her assistance killed the king his master, and removed by death those whom he thought in his way. Nor could anyone see him in connection with these crimes. By means of the ring he in a short time became king of Lydia.De Officiis, III.38
Thus we see that Gyges uses the ring to indulge and pursue his every unlawful desire. His character is fully revealed when his actions are released from constraint. Cicero is more pointed than Plato in drawing out the moral import of the question of invisibility:
“The meaning of this ring and of this example is as follows: If no one would ever know, if no one would ever suspect, when you performed some act for the sake of wealth, power, ascendency, lust, — if it would remain forever unknown to gods and men, would you do it?”De Officiis, III.39
Though it certainly does not exhaust the capabilities of Tolkien’s Ring of Power, the endowment of invisibility is the most prominent parallel between the two rings. In both cases, invisibility reveals character because it poses the question, as Cicero notes, of what you would do if there were no fear of punishment. Gollum possesses the Ring the longest of any character except Sauron, and we know to what ends he used it:
“No one would see him, no one would notice him, till he had his fingers on their throat.”
In the course of his dark wanderings, Gollum loses the Ring. Measuring the world by his own wicked actions (not without justification), he knew the consequence: it would be done unto him as he had done unto others:
“We shan’t ever be safe again, never, Gollum! One of the goblinses will put it on, and then no one will see him. He’ll be there but not seen. Not even our clever eyeses will notice him; and he’ll come creepsy and tricksy and catch us, Gollum, Gollum!”
Luckily for him, the Ring was picked up, not by goblins, but by “the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!” When presented with the same opportunity to slay without danger, Bilbo makes a different choice.
“He was desperate. He must get away, out of this horrible darkness, while he had any strength left. He must fight. He must stab the foul thing, put its eyes out, kill it. It meant to kill him. No, not a fair fight. He was invisible now. Gollum had no sword.”
What is more, even in his fear, Bilbo feels sympathy:
“A sudden understanding, a pity mixed with horror, welled up in Bilbo’s heart: a glimpse of endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.”
Bilbo’s subsequent actions with the Ring bear out this initial revelation of character. He uses the power of invisibility to save the dwarves in Mirkwood, to deliver them from the dungeons of the Elf king, and to spy out the dragon Smaug’s lair. (He does “steal” a cup, but its ownership is disputed).
He even takes special care that no one (spiders don’t count) be injured by his activities while invisible, putting the keys back on belt of chief guard so that he will not be blamed for the dwarves’ escape, and giving a gift to the elf king in return for his “hospitality”—the food and drink Bilbo had invisibly purloined. After he returns from his adventure, he uses the Ring for nothing more nefarious than avoiding unpleasant relatives.
The Gyges story in Plato and Cicero is a version of an older tale which occurs in The Histories by Herodotus, which is itself reflective of popular legend. But there is no magic ring in Herodotus’ telling. Gyges commits all the crimes of the later versions, but he is invisible only in that he is hidden from view and murders the defenseless king while he sleeps. Yet this difference serves to bring the point home.
We may not have a magic ring that would enable us to seize kingdoms or rule Middle-earth, but we face moral choices every day in small things. When we have the opportunity to do as we wish regardless of others, how do we choose? It is an ancient question—and one well worth asking ourselves.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Alexander the Great is one of the most famous people that ever lived. He was a remarkable general and he changed the history of the world. Naturally, such a larger-than-life figure inspired many stories, and these morphed into myths over time. One of the most fascinating is the myth about his sister the mermaid.
Mermaids in Ancient Greek Mythology
According to the Greeks, Gaia, or Mother Earth, was one of the first primordial deities. She came into existence along with Chaos and other deities. Gaia gave birth to Uranus and she later had a sexual relationship with him and out of this incestuous union, she gave birth to the Titans.
From this race of primordial race of giants came the Cyclopes and Oceanus, the god or the embodiment of the Ocean and monstrous figures like Scylla and the three Gorgons. The most famous Gorgon is Medusa. Her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were transformed by Athena into sea monsters. In some accounts, they became sea-mermaids.
To the ancient Greeks, therefore, mermaids were often demonic sea-beings. They were thought to lure seamen to their death. In many myths, they are associated with the sirens, half-women and half-birds, whose singing lured many sailors to the rocks and death by drowning as in Homer’s Odyssey.
The modern world has a favorable conception of mermaids, but in the ancient world they were malign sea figures often blamed for tragedies at sea. It was widely believed that they could cause storms at sea. They were depicted in folk art as a female demon, with a woman’s form from the waist up and a giant fishtail from the waist down.
The Myth of the Mermaid Thessaloniki
According to a popular Greek legend, there lived a mermaid in the Aegean Sea for centuries by the name of Thessaloniki. She was reputedly the half-sister of Alexander the Great. It was told that Alexander’s father Phillip of Macedon had married the mother of Thessaloniki. Phillip was notorious for his many marriages.
According to this popular legend, Alexander went searching for the Fountain of Youth while in Asia and found it. After facing many dangers, he was able to fill a flask with the waters of immortality. Alexander washed his sister’s hair in the precious waters and made her immortal. The great conqueror did not drink the waters and died in Babylon in 323 BC.
Thessaloniki was left grief-stricken and never recovered. Heartbroken, she decided to kill herself but after she threw herself into the waters of the Aegean, she was transformed into a mermaid. A tragic figure, Thessaloniki was also dangerous. Whenever she saw a passing ship, she would ask the sailors if Alexander was alive or dead. Their answers could doom them to a watery death. If they told the mermaid that the great Macedonian was alive, Thessaloniki would leave them to go on their way. If they told her the truth — that he was long dead — she would become furious and turned into a demon or Gorgon, depending on the myth. She would then sink the ship and all the sailors on board would drown. The best-known version of this myth is found in the works of Pausanias.
The Real Thessaloniki
Like so many more myths, this one was based on an actual stepsister of Alexander the Great, the half-sister of the great king. The daughter of Phillip and a Thessalian woman, it appears that she was raised by Olympias — the mother of Alexander — and had little contact with her older half-brother.
After the death of Alexander, she supported Olympias in the struggle for control of Macedonia. After the execution of Olympias, she married Cassander, who had ordered Olympias’ death. She had three sons with Cassander, and he treated her with respect and named the port city of Thessaloniki after her. After the death of her husband, she tried to end the feud between two of her sons for the throne of Macedonia but was murdered by her youngest son, Alexander.
There are many myths surrounding the life of Alexander the Great. The legend of his mermaid stepsister is one of the most amazing. It is still extremely popular in Greek folklore. This tale illustrates how myths are often based on some truth: in this case, Alexander’s real-life step-sister, who became Queen of Macedonia and was tragically killed.
Smith, William, ed. (1870). “Thessalonice”. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.