Category Archives: Mythology[post_grid id="10029"]
Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena… these are just a few of the names that Greek mythology lovers know, as they are no doubt aware of the standard Greek pantheon, the Olympians. They get all the air time, after all, with their epic tales of love, murder, incest, revenge…and everything in between.
The Titans, likewise, grab headlines with their creation stories… They gave fire to man, hold up the earth, and father the sun, the moon and the dawn.
While these deities were held in high esteem by the ancients, the Greeks also worshipped smaller, kinder, more…natural gods – the gods of the countryside. Not surprisingly, these represent water, trees and beasts. Some of these you will have heard about, but others, perhaps, are a little less known:
This satyr-god is the god of the wild, shepherds and flocks, and can often be seen with flute in hand. Being a rustic god of mountain wilds, Pan was not worshipped in temples or other built edifices, but in natural settings, usually caves or grottoes such as the one on the north slope of the Acropolis of Athens. Pan is connected to fertility and the season of spring. The ancient Greeks also considered Pan to be the god of theatrical criticism.
The worship of Pan began in Arcadia which was always the principal seat of his worship. Arcadia was a district of mountain people, culturally separated from other Greeks and Arcadian hunters used to scourge the statue of the god if they had been disappointed in the chase.
The word panic ultimately derives from the god’s name, as his angry shouts determined victories.
A type of female spirit, this nymph presided over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.
Naiads were often the object of archaic local cults, worshipped as essential to humans. Boys and girls at coming-of-age ceremonies dedicated their childish locks to the local naiad of the spring. In places like Lerna their waters’ ritual cleansings were credited with magical medical properties. Animals were ritually drowned there. Oracles might be situated by ancient springs.
The Naiads are distinct from river gods as well as salt water gods.
Sea nymphs were female spirits of sea waters. The Nereids often accompany Poseidon, the god of the sea, and can be friendly and helpful to sailors, like the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. Famous examples include the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris, sisters to Nerites.
Also called Oceanides, they are the nymphs who were the three thousand (a number interpreted as meaning “innumerable”) daughters of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys. The Oceanid nymphs were associated with water, as the personification of springs. Hesiod says they are “dispersed far and wide” and everywhere “serve the earth and the deep waters”.
A tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology, Drys signifies “oak” in Greek. Dryads are specifically the nymphs of oak trees, but the term has come to be used for all tree nymphs in general, or all human-tree hybrids in fantasy. They were normally considered to be very shy creatures except around the goddess Artemis, who was known to be a friend to most nymphs.
Also known as a silenos, a satyr is a male nature spirit with ears and a tail resembling those of a horse, as well as a permanent, exaggerated erection. They were companions of the god Dionysus and were believed to inhabit remote locales, such as woodlands, mountains, and pastures. They often attempted to seduce or rape nymphs and mortal women alike, usually with little success.
Or, The Girl Who Told the Truth about the Gods
By Nicole Saldarriaga, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
I’d take a look at the humble spider. Though spiders may not qualify as the most terrifying of creatures, their inclusion in a popular myth about Roman goddess, Minerva, certainly clues us into what the Greeks and Romans found chilling. I’m speaking here about the myth of Arachne, of course.
Though it’s considered one of the “lesser myths” of Greco-Roman mythology—probably because it’s not quite as detailed as other myths—it still gives us wonderful insight into ancient culture. Essentially, it functions as three different things: a moralistic warning, a subtle jab at the gods, and an origin story.
Before we get into the details of the myth, however, it’s important to point out that—like most myths—Arachne’s story has warped and changed over time, resulting in a few different versions of the myth. We’ll be focusing on the most well-recorded version, which can be found in that great book of transformations, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
According to Ovid, Arachne was the beautiful young daughter of a simple shepherd. She took up the craft of weaving at a very young age and quickly demonstrated an incredible amount of talent. As she grew into a young woman her talent only grew with her, and many people gathered to see her beautiful tapestries or to simply watch her at the loom—a sight that was said to be mesmerizing.
However, after years of having her work effusively praised, Arache gets a bit cocky. She begins to boast that her work is more beautiful than Minerva’s (the Roman equivalent of Athena).
Keep in mind here that Minerva is to weaving what Vulcan is to smithing—she is considered the patron goddess of the craft, yet Arachne refuses to acknowledge Minerva’s hand in her great talent and even claims superiority. As you can imagine, this is incredibly infuriating to the goddess.
So, Minerva does what most of the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses seem to do when a mortal ticks them off— she disguises herself and pays Arachne a little visit. Appearing as an old crone, Minerva warns Arachne that she should not boast so carelessly, and that she should beg the goddess for forgiveness:
“Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.”
Arachne responds with surprise and rage:
“Weak-minded and worn out by tedious old age, you come here, and having lived too long destroys you. Let your daughter-in-law if you have one…listen to your voice. I have wisdom enough of my own. You think your advice is never heeded: that is my feeling too. Why does [Minerva] not come herself ? Why does she shirk this contest?”
Enraged by Arachne’s impudence, Minerva reveals herself as the goddess (which, interestingly, barely affects Arachne), and the two ladies challenge each other to a contest: whoever can produce the most beautiful, the most flawless tapestry wins. In order to ensure fairness, the contest would be judged by the goddess Envy.
So, goddess and mortal sit down to work, and both produce beautiful—but incredibly different tapestries. Ovid spends a relatively lengthy amount of time describing the scenes woven into each tapestry, and for good reason. Minerva weaves a perfectly symmetrical tapestry that depicts the glory of the gods (and her own glorious achievements in particular) in the center, and four separate corner scenes depicting mortals who were severely punished for challenging or insulting the gods. The work is technically flawless, and stunning.
Arachne, on the other hand, weaves a very different tapestry. While hers is also gorgeously worked, it depicts the gods in a very unfavorable light. The tapestry is packed with scenes of gods raping women, deceiving innocent mortals, and generally displaying embarrassing behavior.
Minerva is completely outraged at this further sign of arrogance and insult—and is only angered more by the undeniable fact that the tapestry is perfect. There is no clear winner, but Minerva can’t contain her rage– she tears the offensive tapestry into pieces and begins to beat Arachne with her shuttle (a tool used for weaving).
Arachne can’t bear this abuse, and suddenly hangs herself. This extreme reaction actually causes Minerva to feel pity for Arachne, and the goddess chooses to bring Arachne back to life—but in the form of a spider, so that Arachne can both continue to weave and continue to “hang.”
“Live on then,” says Minerva, “and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!”
There you have it—the creation of the first spider; but as I mentioned earlier, this myth is much more than a simple origin tale for those creepy-crawlies you find in your basement. The basic function of the myth is, of course, to act as a warning.
Like many of the transformation myths found in the Metamorphoses, Arachne’s story is a reminder to never challenge the gods. No matter the validity of your claims, it will not go well for you—that is a guarantee.
But Arachne’s story is also interesting in that it subtly shows us an unpopular opinion about the gods. It’s no secret that the Greco-Roman pantheon is made up of gods who are flawed, petty, and often cruel. Arachne could not ignore this and paid the price for calling attention to it.
In fact, this myth is much more than just a warning— because in the end, it’s very important for us as modern readers to recognize that even the ancients were well aware that their gods were flawed. It may have been unpopular and even dangerous to express this opinion, but the opinion existed, there is no doubt.
Even more interesting is the fact that in the myth itself, the two different perspectives expressed by Minerva and Arachne are both actually substantiated. Minerva punishes Arachne for her insolence, just like the mortals on her tapestry were punished. She clearly believes that the gods have that natural right to command respect.
Arachne, on the other hand, whose tapestry displays mortals being treated unfairly and horribly hurt by the gods, is in fact reprimanded and beaten by Minerva.
Because of this, we could theoretically argue that Arachne’s behavior is not truly arrogant. Instead, it’s simply an example of a young woman telling the truth about her world as she perceives it, and being severely punished for doing so—and that is an entirely different sort of warning. One that, as modern readers, we must hope no longer applies today.
by A.P. David
Unlike Socrates, Plato wrote—and wrote and wrote. This was a man who said, on a rare occasion in the first person, that his theories could not be expressed in writing. Just as inner contradiction is a key to effective drama, where we call it ‘conflict’, contradiction appears to be the fount and foil of philosophy. This is likely a reason why Plato was obsessed with the daimonic, galvanic impact of one peculiar man on the sophistic/philosophical movement that came to a head in fifth-century Athens. It was a man whom Plato had probably known all his life… it was none other than Socrates himself.
Athens was the birthplace of tragedy and comedy, and Plato was supposed to be a successor to Euripides and Agathon in tragedy. Instead, he fell victim to that indescribable pull of Socrates.
After that, only one person could be dramatized by Plato and it certainly wasn’t the traditional, mythic figures posed as Trojan horses. It could only be Socrates, who died for his sins. The man who sent Plato and his crowd into despair at his death would be the focalizing agent for Plato’s dramatic instinct.
Only with Socrates as reagent did the real drama happen for Plato, and consequently real thought could be dramatised.
Let us consider the passage from Crito about Socrates’ dream. Crito walks in on Socrates sleeping so peacefully that he does not wish to wake him up, despite the urgency of his business. We soon find out that the dream is about a gorgeous woman (though it was not likely an erotic dream in any embarrassing sense).
The woman was dressed in white, and καλή καὶ εὐειδής, ‘beautiful and shapely’. She came up to Socrates and called to him, saying, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἤματί κεν τριτάτῳ Φϑίην ἐρίβωλον ἵκοιο. ‘Socrates, on the third day wouldst thou come to fertile Phthia.’
‘Bizarre dream’ says Crito, Socrates’ wealthy age-mate and a man who seems to care more about Socrates as a human person than as a mentor or guru. ‘Seems pretty clear to me, Crito,’ says Socrates in response.
Well, what is clear about it? The beautiful woman is also a motherly figure who seems to know Homer’s works well.
The lines she recites come straight from Achilles, in his response to Odysseus in Book IX of the Iliad:
‘You will see, if you want, and if such things could concern you
At early dawn upon the fish-filled Hellespont sailing,
My own ships, and men in them eager to row;
If he should give us fair voyaging, Glorious Earth-Shaker,
On the third day I would reach deep soiled Phthia.’
At early dawn upon the fish-filled Hellespont sailing,
My own ships, and men in them eager to row;
If he should give us fair voyaging, Glorious Earth-Shaker,
On the third day I would reach deep soiled Phthia.’
Does this mean Socrates is identifying himself with Achilles? On his way to Phthia?
In some ways the Crito, depicting a private conversation that Plato must only have imagined, seems to show the public bravado that Socrates exhibited in his defence at the trial. He there associated himself with Achilles, which was surely not a winning thing to do, when he was ugly, old, and irritating. Was this in fact a genuine fantasy on Socrates’ part?
In the speech at the end of the Crito, Socrates connects himself to Achilles in the context of not deserting his post. Socrates, like Achilles, will stick to his life’s mission under fire. This is because Socrates is a servant of the Laws.
But wait a minute… Achilles actually was fantasising about returning to Phthia. Achilles was looking forward, in the form of a passive-aggressive threat, to deserting his post.
Whatever Socrates may have said at the end of the Crito, he has, in fact, had a dream of wish fulfillment. He has managed, while sleeping, to express his desire to escape the bitter degradation that he has suffered by submitting to Athens. Is it the same dishonour that embroiled Achilles who capitulated to the Achaean army?
No one knows where Achilles’ Phthia really was, but Phthia in historical times was a region of Thessaly. Thessaly, of course, is the ‘lawless place’ where Crito would like to smuggle Socrates. Does Crito understand Socrates’ wish, when he hears about the dream? Is that why he appears to ignore Socrates’ statement that the dream is clear, and presses his suit? Does Socrates want to go to Thessaly?
Context suggests that the woman in Socrates’ dream corresponds to Thetis, Achilles’ divine mother. This further proposes that we should be thinking about the alternative paths to death that Thetis presented to Achilles, in the Iliad. There is a long anonymous life at home, or a short but glorious life at Troy. This also is clear: going back to Phthia, for Achilles, to work on the farm, is the path not chosen.
How does this work in the dream analysis? Socrates wins eternal glory (Plato is the poet to thank for this) by sticking to his post and obeying the Laws. Does the clarity of his dream suggest that this is all a sham? That he would rather desert his thankless army and be received in the arms of a shapely woman, who is his original mother?
Socrates’ own reading of the dream is that it signifies something about the day he will die—the third day. Then Phthia becomes a kind of Hades. Is it possible that Socrates’ conception of the afterlife allowed him, at different times, to fulfill both of Achilles’ fates?
Perhaps it is only this aspect of the number of days that is clear to Socrates. The woman is a mystery. What sort of comfort or reward is her beauty? If you want to take in all of what is in front of you, do not forget her as you contemplate the speech of the Laws, and Socrates’ obligation to the state that is executing him. The ‘argument of the dialogue’ only emerges if you ignore her. Plato included her. Thus there is created a drama not of action but of thought. To resolve it is, is to kill it; meanwhile, Socrates lives.
Written by Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
“Sing, O Muse, of the man of many devices…”
Line one of the Odyssey begins like so many in ancient literature, by invoking the muses or gods. It was a common practice to ask, thank, and implore the other-worldly forces for inspiration and guidance in writing and story-telling.
The muses themselves are generally split into two different generations: the “Elder” and the “Younger.” The Younger Muses are perhaps more widely known, as they were often represented on Mount Olympus or in the company of Dionysus and Apollo. Stories, music, and dance were all a part of their entertainment repertoire, performing in joy and in sorrow, as they were said to have been present even at the funerals of Achilles and Patroclus, lamenting the deceased and their honors in life.
It is the Younger Muses, as Hesiod referred to them in his Theogony, that Calliope, the muse of eloquence and epic poetry, belonged to. Calliope was the eldest of the muse offspring between Zeus and Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory), supposedly conceived on the first night of the partnership. Calliope was also the mother of Orpheus, fathered by Oiagros, the Thracian king, who caused “stones and trees to move” with his own singing.
Calliope is usually depicted with a lyre, tablet, or stylus, representing her written and verbal talents. She doesn’t usually appear by herself in stories, but with her sisters complementing one another.
Calliope, being the muse of eloquence, is naturally closely linked with the mortal world. It is said that she was the one who gifted kings with the ability to speak with grace and power when they were babies by anointing their lips with honey. In this way, when the babies grew up, they were able to “utter true judgments” and “would soon make wise end even of a great quarrel” (Hesiod, Theogony, 75).
Depictions in Art
As the muses as a whole were incredibly influential in the mortal and divine world, it comes as no surprise that they were depicted at length in classical art. Calliope, being considered the eldest, the muse at the helm of her sisters, was a popular subject. She is depicted on dozens of Athenian red figure vases, mosaics, and sculptures.
One famous depiction is on the Francois Vase, a large Attic volute krater produced by the artist Ergotimos around 570 BCE. You can see her identified by name on the upper belly of the vase next to two horses, Zeus, and Ourania, who Calliope leads the procession with. The other 7 muses are depicted behind Zeus. Seen frontally on the vase, Calliope occupies an interesting position of dominance.
In more recent art, such as the painting by Charles Meynier in 1798, Calliope is depicted as directly inspiring the Homeric epics. While she is not specifically named at the opening of epics—just a general ‘muse’ being used to invoke the ethereal realm—Calliope being the oldest, most prominent, and most associated with eloquence, makes it likely that she was the intended muse.
Other renderings of Calliope depict her in the classical style we are familiar with: flowing robes, a tablet or writing instrument, and austere but serene countenance.
Overall, the 9 Muses continue to be treated as a cohesive unit, operating in pursuit of a common goal. However, Calliope is presented and revered as one of the more prominent of muses, no doubt due to the fact that she is intimately tied to the Homeric epics and feats of leaders. She operates immediately behind the scenes, never far from the action.
By Ben Potter
Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he was ‘the best of all men that ever came to Troy, save only Achilles’.
However, Ajax’s status as number two in the Greek pecking order wasn’t always fully appreciated. After Achilles perished when the arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris pierced his Achilles’ heel (oh the irony!) and Ajax gallantly carried his fallen comrade from the battlefield, it was assumed that the coveted armor worn by the slain hero would pass on to the number two warrior, Ajax.
However, the Greek commander Agamemnon and his brother, husband of the wanton Helen, Menelaus had other ideas. Persuaded by his eloquence, they decided to give the armor to Odysseus.
So what’s the big deal? Ajax is a wealthy prince and a mighty warrior, surely he doesn’t need Achilles’ armor, right?
The armor is not merely precious, useful and a wonderful souvenir which could rival a piece of the true cross, but it is hugely symbolic. It is so saturated in symbolic honor that to be denied it, Ajax has been forced to suffer a de facto demotion.
This snub is enough to tip a character, who is often portrayed as tactless, boorish and arrogant, totally over the edge.
He resolved to steal out into the night and enter the beach encampments of his fellow Greek commanders whereupon he would kill whomever he could and bring the rest back to his own tent for torture.
This, Ajax achieved… or at least thought he had achieved. Instead the goddess Athena, looking to protect her favorite, Odysseus, sent Ajax mad so that instead of mutilating Agamemnon, Menelaus et al, he butchered a flock of sheep.
It is at this point, with sanity suddenly returning to him, that Sophocles‘ Ajax begins.
However, an Athenian audience wouldn’t have been waiting with bated breath to see what was in store for the man whose stock has dropped from the heights of second greatest of all the Greeks to being a traitor and maniacal livestock botherer. They already knew his fate; he was to commit suicide.
Whilst myths are able to evolve and Athenian tragedians do often significantly change major details of stories, this one was perhaps a step too far even for the innovative Sophocles to tinker with.
Instead what he does is develop Ajax’s tragic flaw. Quite obviously pride would be the one to play up, but Sophocles mixes it with a shot of blasphemy to make a cocktail of hubris.
There is some minor evidence for such impiety in The Iliad. In book XI, Ajax won’t listen to the gods when they instruct the Greeks to retreat from the battlefield, but continues fighting nobly and bravely when the other heroes are making their tactical withdrawal.
Also, most Greek heroes are honored by a patron deity who watches over them. Odysseus and Diomedes have Athena, Achilles has Thetis; even the Trojans Paris and Hector have Aphrodite and Apollo respectively. However, Ajax is alone.
It is this theme that Sophocles nurtures as we learn that Athena did not merely send Ajax wild to save her dear Odysseus, but to punish the doomed man himself. The Messenger (a stock character in ancient tragedy) highlights just why this is:
“The gods have dreadful penalties in store for worthless and redundant creatures, mortals who break the bounds of mortal modesty. And Ajax showed he had no self-control the day he left his home. ‘Son,’ said his father – and very properly – ‘Go out to win, but with God beside you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Ajax with vain bravado, ‘any fool can win with God beside him; I intend to win glory and honor on my own account.’”
Thus Ajax is seen not only as a character with a deeply flawed personality, but one who is on the end of Divine retribution. So the question that crops up isn’t so much ‘did he deserve his fate’ as ‘can we feel any sympathy for him at all’?
Well… Ajax was honor-bound to come to Troy by the oath sworn during his courtship of Helen. In Sophocles, Ajax is less concerned with rescuing the stolen princess than with trying to please or even emulate his father Telamon, who himself sacked Troy in the previous generation along with Heracles – a feat, of course, which Ajax has been unable to better.
Telamon, “the man who never smiles”, is the only man who Ajax seems afraid of and indeed he comments timorously: “How will he welcome me, when I come home empty-handed?”
It feels like Ajax been pushed all his life to try and accumulate kleos (reputation) and succeed at every turn simply in order to be able to step out of his father’s shadow. The failure to gain Achilles’ armor would have be seen as unacceptable in Ajax’s own eyes and presumably also in those of Telamon.
Can we find sympathy for a man whose every waking thought is centered round yearning for his father’s approval? Is this something which reinforces Ajax’s pathetic vanity? And in turn does it cause us to pity rather than despise him?
Sophocles includes a “family scene” which contrasts starkly to its inspiration in book VI of The Iliad. It involved Hector, his wife, Andromache and their son, Astyanax. Hector, knowing he was going into mortal combat from which he may not return, is depicted as a loving husband and gentle father.
The parody in Ajax shows the ‘hero’, not going nobly into battle, but about to selfishly and capriciously commit suicide. In these final moments they can share together he is very curt and snaps at his wife, Tecmessa. He hopes that his son, Eurysaces, will be as good a man as he is, only more lucky. Hector on the other hand desired that Astyanax would emulate him, going on to bigger and better things. This makes it seem like Ajax can’t bear to be outshone by anyone, not even his own flesh and blood!
Both men also worry about their wives being sold into slavery should they die. However, by committing suicide and Tecmessa being a foreigner, Ajax has all but guaranteed this fate for her.
The dramatic irony of this scene causes us to feel great pity for poor Tecmessa, an innocent victim of a self-destructive and proud fool who, instead of being the linchpin of victory in the Trojan War heaps woe upon woe, tarnishes his reputation, enslaves his loved-ones, bereaves his loyal and loving half-brother and leaves his father without an heir.
However, this is not the only way in which Sophocles creates suspense, pity and fear. Ajax falls on his sword just over half way through the story, the rest of the play is a struggle between Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer and the opposing, gloating siblings, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
The tension comes about because Teucer is being denied by the Atreidai (the sons of Atreus) the right to bury Ajax.
Prohibition of burial rites might seem like more of an insult than a real tragedy to us, but it was of vital importance to the Greeks. It was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that!
Indeed, the importance of burial rites ties in with the fact that Sophocles has been, very wrongly, accused of making a hash out of Ajax due to the fact that the main character dies, and therefore the climax is reached, so early in the performance.
What these critics don’t understand is that the death is a foregone conclusion, common knowledge to all, but the burial of Ajax is far from guaranteed. Consequently, this sacred rite, the blasphemous denial of which would leave no Athenian theatre-goer sitting comfortably, creates tension and drama of the very highest order. Especially as all the men at the crux of the debate are edgy, angry and highly dangerous.
Indeed some interpret the play as reflecting the mental pressure on men in the appalling conditions of siege-warfare, far away from their homes and loved-ones and with the constant threat of slavery or annihilation hanging over their heads.
However, the play ends on a hopeful note thanks to a most unlikely source.
Odysseus, acting like a deus ex machina, manages to convince Agamemnon that Ajax, despite his faults, deserves a burial. Although Agamemnon doesn’t really concur and is amazed that Odysseus, mortal enemy of Ajax, wants to help Teucer, he allows him to do as he pleases.
And these are the words with which Odysseus guides the heart-broken Teucer through his darkest hour:
“I have this to say to you: I am your friend henceforth, as truly I was your enemy; and I am ready to help you bury your dead and share in every office that we mortals owe to the noblest of our kind”.
And thus Odysseus shows us that even in death, even through enmity, even when blood has been shed, bile been spat, even when hate and hostility trickle from the lips more readily than any words of friendship or conciliation…. even then there is still room for someone to step in and make things right, to honor the gods through a kind act and to lighten, even slightly, the weight upon a bereaved and dejected soul.
By Peter Marshall, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
the great god
I begin to sing, he who moves the earth
and the desolate sea…
You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.
Help those who sail upon
~Homeric Hymn to Poseidon
Gods and Legends
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea, the shaker of the land responsible for earthquakes, and the god of horses. Usually living in the sea, he could make the waters either calm or stormy depending on his volatile moods. As a patron deity of Athens, Poseidon competed with Athena, who planted the sacred olive tree, by establishing a magical well of salt water on the Acropolis.
If any boat was to survive in Poseidon’s Realm, its crew would have to appease him, usually in the form of sacrifices. The ancient Greeks would kill bulls on beaches or temples and offer up the sacrifices to the god; I preferred in my sailing voyage around the Aegean to make a libation to his memory and presence, usually in the form of the first glass of wine which I poured in the waters of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’.
Poseidon—Neptune to the Romans—was one of the three main gods of ancient Greece. He was the brother to Zeus, the most powerful god and ruler of the Heavens, and to Hades, the god of the Underworld where a soul goes to spend a ghostly existence after death. As with the other gods and goddesses, they intervened into human affairs and often took the form of what humans called fate.
When Odysseus, for instance, tried to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Homer tells us in his epic poem The Odyssey, it took him many years because he had angered Poseidon after blinding one of his sons, the one-eyed monster Cyclops Polyphemus for eating his crew and for keeping him captive in a cave. On the other hand, Odysseus was helped on his way by the intervention of the goddess Athena who wanted the Trojans defeated.
The gods and goddesses normally lived on the summit of Mount Olympus (the tallest mountain in Greece, and only climbed by humans at the beginning of the last century, and by myself this century). Although in some ways idealized, they were all-too-human, quarrelling with each other, committing adultery, laughing as well as being downhearted. Zeus would often have arguments with his wife Hera, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, particularly because of his many infidelities.
Despite the cities along the coast of the Eastern Aegean being the birthplace of philosophy and science, with one philosopher saying we can know nothing of the gods and the afterlife, most Greeks firmly believed in their gods. They held Delos in the center of the Aegean to be a sacred island, the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light, music and knowledge, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon. And they readily consulted oracles, especially at Delphi, in their attempts to see into the future.
But Apollo was also the brother of Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy. Many festivals of plays and songs were put on his honour. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for one saw the birth of Greek tragedy to a combination of ‘Apollonian’ spirit giving form to ‘Dionysian’ energy.
Mythology was an important part of my voyage around the Aegean as it helps to understand ancient Greeks. I set off in a small sailing boat with a traveling companion and traveling at roughly the same speed as the ancient boats, I drew a great circle around the Aegean.
My voyage in space reflected my voyage in time, for I investigated the various stages in ancient Greek history, from the Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Classical and the Hellenic. I also wanted to test my hunch that Greek civilization cannot be properly understood except from the point of view of the sea. It was central to their lives; Plato described accurately the city states like ‘frogs around a pond’. With a mountainous hinterland and poor soil, they inevitably looked to the sea for foreign trade and new colonies.
The only time they stopped fighting against each other was when they declared a temporary truce for their Olympic games every four years and when they were united against a common foe. Twice they had to face the Persians who had at the time the most powerful empire the world had ever known, under Xerxes I, the ‘King of Kings’. They brought vast armies and huge fleets to conquer the troublesome and squabbling peoples on their western border.
However, believing themselves to be free, the greatly outnumbered Greeks managed to push back the far greater force which would have enslaved them and changed the nature of Europe forever.
After sailing for six seasons in my small sailing boat, covering over 5,000 miles, I visited many ancient sites both famous and obscure and met many Greeks and Turks on the way. I suffered a near shipwreck and sinking. But more than sailing narrative and personal quest, I returned with a remarkable portrayal of the Greeks and a fuller understanding of their history, mythology and culture.
It is certainly worth studying the art, sculpture, literature, philosophy and architecture of ancient Greece—not only because the people are valuable and fascinating in themselves—but because the culture forms the seabed of Western civilization. I have witnessed the unforgettable portrait of arguably the most beautiful and magical sea in the world.
Peter Marshall is the author of Poseidon’s Realm: A Voyage around the Aegean the recently published by Zena. ISBN 9780951106969. He has written 16 books which have been translated into as many languages. His website is www.petermarshall.net