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Aphrodite: The Original Honey Trap

by April 23, 2019

There’s a thin line between love and hate, but there’s hardly a crack of daylight between Love and War.
Aphrodite, born from a pair of discarded testicles, had a perfect body, and a magic girdle that made everyone fall in love with her. She also had a libido to rival that of Zeus.
Meanwhile, Ares, with his bad-temper, rippling muscles, blood-lust and love of drink was the dumb jock of Mount Olympus.
Unfortunately for Ares, the problem with being a dumb jock, is that you can easily be outsmarted by your lover’s husband. Especially if he is the God of Smiths, the calf-crippled Hephaestus.
Aphrodite and Ares had been making love all night at his palace in Thrace. Losing track of time, Dawn arose fresh and rosy-fingered followed by Helios, the Sun God. As his warm rays caressed the bodies of the busy lovers, he was given a personal peep-show of two of the most gorgeous creatures in existence locked in a passionate embrace.
With such a red-hot piece of gossip as this to spread, Helios immediately went running to Hephaestus and told him everything.
Aphrodite with Ares

Aphrodite with Ares

Hephaestus, poor lame Hephaestus, wanted to get even. Knowing he couldn’t best Ares physically, he set a trap for him.
Retiring to his workshop he fashioned a bronze hunting-net, as fine as gossamer, but strong enough to hold the wrathful and writhing God of War.
On telling his wife he was off for a holiday to sunny Lemnos, Aphrodite seized upon her opportunity for a bit of ‘how’s your father’ in the comfort of her own home.
Returning from his sojourn at the beach, Hephaestus walked into his bedroom to find his wife and her lover in bed, naked, trapped under the net.
His plan had worked! Brains had bested brawn and the adulterers were at the mercy of the cuckold.
hephaestus aphrodite

Hephaestus and Aphrodite

But what next? You’ve caught the lovers in the act. They’re naked, trapped defenceless and vulnerable. What steps do you take? What demands do you make? What revenge do you enact?
Of course the obvious answer is you invite all of your friends around to have a gawk. And gawk they did!
The gods flocked to the scene and stood around the embarrassed and bemused couple. Zeus was shocked, Poseidon aroused, whilst Hermes and Apollo behaved like the relative juveniles that there were:

“You’d swap places with Ares right now, wouldn’t you?” Sniggered Apollo.
“Too right I would! Even if there were three nets!” Replied the salivating Hermes.

The incandescent Hephaestus refused to release the couple until he had been repaid his marriage gifts. Zeus, in a bout of incongruous prudishness, was so disgusted by the whole affair that he would have nothing to do with it.
Poseidon offered surety that Ares would pay the debt.
“And if he doesn’t, I will expect you to take his place!” Bellowed the outraged Hephaestus.
“What under the net?” Giggled Apollo.
The couple were released.
Ares returned to Thrace – he didn’t repay the debt.
Aphrodite, grateful for Poseidon’s help in releasing her, bore him two sons. And grateful for Hermes’ compliments, she bore him a son too.
Poseidon, happy to marry Aphrodite, didn’t cough up the money. Hephaistos, still in love, didn’t divorce her.
Aphrodite went for a swim in the sea at Paphos, thus renewing her virginity.

The Athenian Athena

by April 3, 2019

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Anyone with an interest in the classical Greek world may well have been intrigued, possibly confused, by the relationship between the goddess Athena and the ancient centre of democracy, philosophy and theatre, Athens.
As Walter Burkett said in his excellent book, Greek Religion: “whether the goddess is named after the city or the city after the goddess is an ancient dispute”. One, unfortunately, which is impossible to resolve.
However, an ancient tourist would have needed to look no further than the pediments of the mighty Parthenon to see evidence of Athena’s importance to the city.
Pediments from the Parthenon.

Pediments from the Parthenon.

The East pediment shows her motherless birth, straight from the head of Zeus. The myth goes that the King of the Gods, complaining of a headache, had his skull cracked open by Hephaistos‘ mighty hammer and out popped Athena, fully grown and clad in armor.
The West pediment depicts an early edition of Athens’ Got Talent (or whatever the devil the young people watch) with a competition between Athena and the sea-god Poseidon to win the honor of becoming the city’s patron deity by performing a beneficial miracle.
Poseidon created a salt water spring after striking his trident into the ground, to this Athena responded by producing an olive tree that is still visible on the Acropolis today.
Another myth explains that Athena triumphed over Poseidon because all the women, who made up a majority, voted for her and all the men for the sea-god. From this point on men decided women were not allowed to take part in elections. This fanciful, if amusing, tale of sour-grapes and misogyny is thought to have been a later introduction (i.e. during the democracy).
Statue of Poseidon

Poseidon: Loser in the City Competition of a Patron God…

As well as her role as the patron deity, Athena also contributed to the ancient lineage of the city.
She was said to have been pursued by skull-cracker Hephaistos who, with the trademark chivalry of the ancient gods, attempted to rape her of her virginity. However he spilt his seed on the ground and from it Erecthonius, the mythological ancient king of Athens was born. Athena then became foster mother to the baby and brought him up on the Acropolis.
Whilst such stories may seem whimsical, sometimes fay, to us, the power of the physical imagery of Athena cannot be underestimated.
It was one of the key factors by which Peisistratus became tyrant c.557/6 BC. According to Terry Buckley: “he dressed up a stunningly beautiful six-foot woman in full armor; it was then claimed through messengers that she was Athena…and that she herself in her chariot was delivering Peisistratus to her own Acropolis to take over the rule of Athens’.
Illustration of Politician with "Athena"

Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus

Although it is highly unlikely that the people of Athens truly believed Athena had come to Earth and was standing next to a politician in a chariot, the symbolism of the stunt and the association to the goddess seemed to endear Peisistratus to many.
Thus, ‘I am driven with a mission from God’ is as timelessly effective as it is unoriginal.
The most significant role Athena played as the patron deity was her contribution in the Panathenaia, a huge, annual festival of religious devotion and national pride; a Christmas Day and 4th of July rolled into one.
Falling on Athena’s birthday (28th day of Hekatombaion), the vast scale of the festival is recorded on the 175-yard long frieze of the Parthenon and includes animals for sacrifice, metics (resident foreigners), musicians, infantry, cavalry, craftsmen, priests and ordinary Athenians marching by deme (parish).
Athletic competition was also a part of the festivities and, here again, we see the influence of Athena. The special olive oil that was given to the victors was presented in a vessel that had the goddess on one side and the chosen discipline of the victorious athlete on the other.
Panathenaic Amphora

Panathenaic Amphora

Over 1400 amphorae (or type of container/vase) of this sort were produced every year in time for the Panathenaia.
The celebration took place on a much larger scale every forth year. As part of the Grand Panathenaia, a huge peplos (tunic) was placed on the 39 foot statue of Athena Parthenos, situated inside the Parthenon. Outside the temple, this elegance was starkly contrasted as Athena’s birth was re-enacted in a grisly ritual where a bull’s head was smashed open, though presumably without an armored cow jumping out.
This huge chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos is worth further comment. Containing 2400 lbs of gold, it was built between 447 and 438 BC, at a time when the Greeks had just resisted invasion against the mighty Persian army.
Thus, Athens was leading the world not only in terms of power, but also in culture; the finest thinkers, playwrights and scientists were either emerging from Athens or making an intellectual pilgrimage there. The grandeur and pomp of the Athena Parthenos was fitting, not only for the time, but for the thanks the citizens owed their patron protectress.
However, when the tables turned, it would have looked at best foolish and embarrassing, and at worst mocking and damning.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

During the latter part of the 5th century, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, not only sustaining huge casualties, but being transformed from the leaders of progressive thought and democracy to a second-rate power. The victorious Spartans even forced the Athenians to suffer the emasculating humiliation of having their protective city walls taken down.
As often happens when people feel god has abandoned them, they abandon god. However, in this instance, it seems Athenians abandoned the over-sized, suddenly incongruous sculpture, rather than the goddess herself.
The statue still remained a great work of art and a massive tourist attraction (there were at least 300 ancient replicas), but, as Andrew Stewart commented: “it swiftly lost its religious significance to all but a tiny minority… after 404 BC the Athena Parthenos became a museum piece”.
Astoundingly, there is a full-size replica of the mighty effigy in Nashville, Tennessee which boasts extraordinary attention to detail. The main difference being there is no documented evidence the original was made of gypsum and fiberglass.
Reconstruction of Athena

The Athena Replica in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Despite her elevated status as patron, Athena was not totally dominant of the religious worship in Athens. The Eleusinian mysteries were (rather ironically) among the best known of all the Athenian cults and primarily paid homage to Demeter.
Also, the erection over the Agora of the Hephaisteion in the 440s BC gives great and towering status to the would-be assailant of Athena. What may have been doubly galling to Athena fans is that this building was made to honor the blacksmiths for their role in the Persian Wars, despite Athena being sacred to metal-workers.
Some say Socrates (executed for impiety) and men like him were bringing into question the very existence or importance of the gods. Whilst of all the extant Athenian tragedies, only The Ajax of Sophocles casts Athena in a role of any importance.
Despite these aberrations, there seems little doubt that Athena was ever-present in the psyche of the Athenians and there was certainly enough good-will in the bank to maintain for her a place of prominence within the polis.
Lemnian Athena

Lemnian Athena

Although she had many sub-roles within society: being sacred to maidens, weavers, carpenters, oil manufacturers, and blacksmiths, combined with her reverential position as the goddess of eyesight, wisdom and warfare, it is the historical, nationalistic and social links that make her such an important figure as patron.
Certainly being responsible for the year’s biggest knees-up is something that would cause even the staunchest unbeliever to rejoice in her worship.
After all, piety is all well and good, but a party is usually better.

Titans of Greek Mythology

by March 5, 2019

Okay, today we are talking about the Titans of Greek mythology.
Now, of course there are a lot of sources when it comes to discussing ancient Greek mythology, but we are going to use Hesiod’s Theogony, which is sort of like the Bible of the ancient Greek world.
So first, what is a Titan? Titans are the children of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). According to Hesiod, there were 12 original Titans: the brothers Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Cronus and the sisters Thea, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys.
Chart Showing Greek Mythology Genealogy

The Genealogy of the Titans of Greek Mythology

As all Greek mythology goes, the Titans have a pretty dramatic tale, filled with violence, revenge and punishment… and it all started with mother earth (Gaia) who encouraged her children to rebel against their father after he had shut them up in the underworld (Tartarus).
The brothers and sisters chose Cronus as their leader and once he had disposed Uranus, he became ruler.
This, however, did not last long. Cronus’ son Zeus rebelled against him and a 10 year battled ensued called the Titanomachia. The Titans lost and those who sided with Cronus (his siblings) were thrown back into the underworld, Tartarus.
Painting of the Titanomachia

The Titanomachia as painted in The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis van Haarlem in 1588–1590

Perhaps surprisingly, the Titans are not pictured by Hesiod as evil monsters who the gods fortunately overthrew… but a happy golden race. This idea is continued by the Romans who saw Cronus as Saturn.
Here is a breakdown of the original 12 Titans. You’ll notice some are much more important than others…
1. Mnemosyne – She is the goddess of memory. “Mnemosyne” is derived from the same source as the word mnemonic, that being the Greek word mnēmē, which means “remembrance, memory”. Mnemosyne is the mother of the nine Muses.
Mnemosyne painting

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mnemosyne.

2. Tethys – Sister and wife of Titan-god Oceanus, mother of the Potamoi and the Oceanids. Tethys had no active role in Greek mythology and no established cults.
3. Theia – Also called Euryphaessa “wide-shining”, her brother/consort is Hyperion, a Titan and god of the sun, and together they are the parents of Helios (the Sun), Selene (the Moon), and Eos (the Dawn).
4. Phoebe – She had two daughters, Leto, who bore Apollo and Artemis, and Asteria, a star-goddess who bore an only daughter, Hecate. Given the meaning of her name and her association with the Delphic oracle, Phoebe was perhaps seen as the Titan goddess of prophecy and oracular intellect.
5. Rhea – She is known as “the mother of gods” and therefore is strongly associated with Gaia and Cybele, who have similar functions. The classical Greeks saw her as the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but not as an Olympian goddess in her own right.
Rhea

Statue of Rhea

6. Themis – She is described as “[the Lady] of good counsel”, and is the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom. Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic.
7. Oceanus – Believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the sea, he is an enormous river encircling the world.
8. Hyperion – With his sister, the Titaness Theia, Hyperion fathered Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn).
Painting of Greek Deities

The three children, depicting different times of day.

9. Coeus – He played no active part in Greek religion and appears only in lists of Titans. Coeus was primarily important for his descendants.
10. Cronus – He was the leader and youngest of the first generation of Titans. He overthrew his father and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own son Zeus and imprisoned in Tartarus.
Painting of Cronus and Uranus

Cronus castrating his father Uranus

11. Crius – As the least individualized among the Titans, he was overthrown in the Titanomachy.
12. Iapetus – He was the father (by an Oceanid named Clymene or Asia) of Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. Iapetus is sometimes thought as the progenitor of mankind, similar to Japheth (יֶפֶת), the son of Noah, based on the similarity of their names and the tradition.

The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios

by October 18, 2018

By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
Painting of the Greek sun god

‘Helios on His Chariot’ (Detail) by Hans Adam Weissenkircher (17th century).

An unpunished second-generation Titan of Greek myth, Helios was a deity who was important, but not always recognized for his powers. Until his role was usurped by a newer god, Helios was the deity of the life-giving, season-changing sun. He appeared in artwork riding his horse-drawn chariot across the sky and was a firsthand witness to several major events in the lives of other gods and goddesses, but Helios generally seemed to pass along in the background, seeing everything going on both on earth and in the heavens as he made sure to follow his daily routine.
Titans, Nymphs, Kings, and Oceanids: Helios’ Extensive Family
Helios’ parents were the Titans Hyperion, god of light, and Theia, goddess of sight. His sisters were Selene (the Moon) and Eos (Dawn). He was born/created in what is called the Golden Age of Greek Mythology and was responsible for bringing light to the world as the god of the sun. That role would gradually be usurped.
The Greek god of sun at noon

‘Helios as Personification of Midday’ (1765) by Anton Raphael Mengs.

His lovers include the Oceanids Perseis (whom some sources call his wife) and Clymene as well as the nymphs Crete and Rhodes.
His daughters with Persis include the famed sorceresses Circe, a lover to Odysseus, and Pasiphae, King Minos of Crete’s wife. His two sons with Perseis were King Aietes (Aeete) of Kolchis (Colchis) and King Perses of Persia.
Phaethon was his son born from Helios’ relation with Clymene and he had three (or five) daughters with her, known collectively as the Heliades.
Painting of the four seasons

‘Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons’ (1635) by Nicola Poussin.

With Rhode, Helios had seven sons, the Heliadae, and a daughter named Electryone. These sons were said to have been smarter and stronger than any other men and soon became the rulers of Rhodes. Three of the main cities, Ialysos, Cameiros, and Lindos, are said to be named for three of his sons.
Two of his nymph daughters, Lampetia and Phaethusa, were in charge of overseeing his cattle on Thrinacia.
Helios in Art – How Did the Ancients Depict the Greek Sun God?
Helios appeared in all kinds of Greek art. He’s generally depicted as a young man wearing a crown of the sun’s rays, or with bright, curly hair. His piercing eyes reflect the legends of his all-seeing gaze and he’s clothed in a garment fit for a god. A simpler Greek symbol for Helios is a large haloed eye.
The poet who authored the 31st Homeric Hymn presents a beautiful description of the sun deity’s appearance in artwork:
“As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him.”
Sculpture of the Greek Sun god

Relief showing Helios, sun god in the Greco-Roman mythology. From the North-West pediment of the temple of Athena in Ilion (Troy). Between the first quarter of the 3rd century BC and 390 BC. Marble. Found during the excavations lead by Heinrich Schliemann in 1872, now in the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Usually the sun god is shown riding his golden chariot at the edge or in the background of someone else’s scene. His chariot is drawn by four winged horses, or sometimes dragons, and he is sometimes accompanied by one or both of his sisters.
His image has been identified in several examples of Greek pottery dating to the 5th and 6th centuries BC. For example, Helios is depicted on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC, in which boys symbolizing the stars fall towards the ocean as he approaches. He’s also represented in some Heracles’ scenes on 6th century BC black-figure and 5th century BC red-figure pottery.
Pottery of the Greek sun god

Helios on a red-figure calyx-krater from 420 BC.

The most famous example of Helios in art, however, was the Colossus of Rhodes. This massive standing figure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was constructed between 304 and 280 BC, but toppled over during an earthquake in either 228 or 226 BC. Coins from Rhodes also presented their patron deity for centuries.
Some notable historic figures also took on the likeness of the Greek sun god in their portraits. Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors Vespasian and Nero all desired to be seen as incarnations of a sun god.
Bust of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great as Helios. Marble, Roman copy after a Hellenistic original from 3rd–2nd century BC.

His Daily Journey Across the Sky
The most important ancient Greek myth of Helios is his daily journey. The ancient Greeks believed that there was a golden chariot of the sun that was so bright that human eyes could not bear to gaze upon it. For them, that chariot was driven from the east (Ethiopia) to the west (Hesperides) across the sky every day by the god Helios.
The journey was difficult and it was believed that Helios was a skilled charioteer to be able to not fly too close or distant from the earth. Helios’ daily trip across the sky began as his sister Eos (as dawn) threw open the gates of his beautiful eastern palace. He set off with his four winged horses (Aethon, Aeos, Pyrois, and Phlegon). The long travel had a steep ascent, peaked around mid-day, and then steeply descended towards his western palace, where his nephew, Hesperus (evening) awaited him.
Painting of the Gods

Three paintings showing three deities of Greek mythology as personifications of the times of the day. From left to right: Helios (or sun god Apollo) personifying Day, Hesperus embodying Evening, and Selene (or Diana, Luna) personifying Night or the Moon.

To return to the eastern palace, Helios was believed to have sailed under the world via the northerly stream of the realm of Oceanus with his horses and chariot in a golden boat (or large cup/goblet, or bed) created by the master smith and deity, Hephaestus. While Helios was hidden in Oceanus, Selene, the moon goddess, took her turn to cross the sky.
Minor Roles for Helios in Greek Myths
Another well-known myth involving Helios was when his son almost destroyed the earth. A popular version of the Greek myth of Phaethon says that the young man wanted proof that the sun was his father, so he went east to test the deity and ask him for a gift. Helios agreed to give his son whatever the youth wanted, but was distressed to discover Phaethon wanted to take a turn driving the golden sun chariot across the sky. He reluctantly consented and that favor turned into a disaster.
Phaethon could not control the winged horses and spun out of control, hurtling too far, then far too close, to the earth. Some of the world froze and other parts were set on fire as Phaethon struggled to control the chariot. But it was too much for him and as the gods watched the chaos unfold it was decided that something must be done before the earth was destroyed.
Picture depicting Phaeton's fall

‘The Fall of Phaeton’ (1531-1535) by Giovanni Bernardi.

Zeus saw no other option than to strike Phaethon down with a thunderbolt. The gods had to beg Helios to return to his work following the death of his son, but the sun god eventually agreed. And Phaethon’s sisters, the Heliades, were in such despair due to their brother’s death that their tears turned into amber and they became poplar trees.
Helios also played a minor role in many Greek myths. For example, his power to see everything on earth and in the heavens made him an eyewitness to the abduction of Persephone by Hades and the affair between Aphrodite and Ares.
Painting of Helios the Greek God

Helios (as Sol) shows the other gods Venus and Mars (Aphrodite and Ares), Vulcan (Hephaestus) stands at the front of the painting. (1540) by Maarten van Heemskerck.

He sometimes offered his assistance to other characters in Greek myth, such as when he allowed his granddaughter Medea to flee on his chariot after she murdered her children. He also lent his golden ship/cup to Heracles when the Greek hero had to cross Oceanus and capture the cattle of Geryon. Helios rescued his friend Hephaestus from the battlefield during the Gigantomachy and restored Orion’s eyesight after he was blinded by Oenipion as well. The earth mother goddess, Gaia, also sought his aid in warming and drying her when the land had been frozen by the remains of Typhon.
But Helios also showed his vengeful side when he appeared in the epic Greek tale, the Odyssey. After Odysseus’ men fed upon Helios’ sacred cattle he was so angered he had Zeus strike Odysseus’ ship with a thunderbolt – Odysseus was the only survivor of the attack.
The Cult of Helios
In Classical Greece, Helios was openly worshipped in Rhodes, where he was considered their patron deity since at least the early 5th century BC. Legends said that Helios was the first to see the island emerge from the waters and claimed it as his own. The island’s name came from Helios’ nymph lover, Rhodos. Every five years the island held PanHellenic games called the Halieia and a chariot and four horses were thrown into the sea as an offering to Helios.
While he was worshiped on Rhodes, it seems that Helios was not a major cult deity in the rest of ancient Greece. Temples of worship have not been mentioned to any extent, perhaps due to a belief that ‘barbarians’ built temples of worship to the sun. Nonetheless, his name was invoked in serious oaths and Plato wrote that Socrates and others would greet and pray to the sun every day.
Illustration of the Colossus of Rhodes

‘The Colossus of Rhodes straddling over the harbor’ (1886) painting by Ferdinand Knab.

Helios vs Apollo and Sol – Who was the Real Sun God?
The Greek Titans fell and the Olympians arose. Helios was not punished after the Titanomachy, but ancient Greeks pushed his role as the sun god towards someone else – Apollo.
It seems that the radiant and pure god Apollo began to gradually take over the role of sun god beginning around the 5th century BC. By the Hellenistic period the transition was almost complete. Apollo and Helios had become almost synonymous.
The Romans transformed Helios/Apollo into their sun god, Sol, and decided it was time for the deity to take a more important cult role. The Circus Maximus of Rome even had a temple dedicated to Sol and Luna (the Moon) from the 3rd century BC.

The Rape of a Goddess

by July 27, 2018

by Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Who were Demeter and Persephone and why did their myth resonate so strongly with women of ancient Greece? The story of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, queen of the underworld, has inspired many. And while there are twenty-two variations of the myth, it is the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (hereafter called the Hymn), composed between 650-550 BCE, that is believed to be one of the oldest.
However, the episode that leads up to the narrative found in the Hymn is as important as their story itself, as it sets the tone straight away. It starts with Zeus, lord of the gods, who rapes his sister Demeter, and the product of that rape is Persephone. They never married. Indeed, Zeus would have been the husband to hundreds if he married everyone he raped.
The famous Hymn then begins with the reciting of Zeus’ agreement with Hades in regards to Persephone. To be sure, his being an absentee father did not stop Zeus from arranging the marriage of his daughter – unbeknownst to either her or her mother – to his brother—Hades, the lord of the underworld.
Rape of a Goddess

Sculpture by Bernini depicting the Rape of Persephone

As a result, one day while Persephone was out picking flowers with her friends, the earth cleaved open and Hades, on a horse drawn chariot, charged out violently, snatching Persephone to be his wife for all eternity in the underworld. Persephone shrieks at the violence of the attack, alerting Demeter to her peril.
Inconsolable at the loss of her daughter, Demeter roams the earth in search of Persephone. No one, god nor mortal, has the courage to tell her what became of her daughter. Finally, through information gleaned by the pre-Olympian goddess Hecate, Demeter is informed of Persephone’s rape.
Upon discovering that Zeus made the perfidious bargain with Hades, Demeter withdraws from her residence on Mount Olympus, and instead makes her home in an agrarian community populated by mortals. After many trials and tribulations there, a grand temple is built in Demeter’s honor with attendant rites to conciliate her spirit. But these honors are not enough to appease the grieving goddess.
It is at this point in the story that Demeter realizes her full strength. As a means of regaining her daughter from Hades, she exploits her power of fertility and stops the seasons, turning the earth into a barren wasteland. Reluctant to see the planet he shepherds whither away, Zeus pleads with Demeter to make the earth abundant once again. But Demeter will not relent until Persephone is released.
Finally, Zeus intercedes on Demeter’s behalf and orders Hades to return Persephone to her mother’s earthly domain. Ever obedient to Zeus, Hades adheres to his instruction but not until he lures Persephone into consuming a pomegranate seed. The mere act of eating in the underworld binds Persephone to Hades as his wife for a few months out of every year.
The mother and daughter goddesses

Demeter and Persephone reunite

So how did this parable of the kidnapped bride ring true for women living in ancient Greece?
Living under their husbands’ patriarchal thumbs, women were accustomed to being kept out of the loop regarding the matrimony of their daughters, and as such, it was not unusual for a father to bargain with his future son-in-law about the fate of his daughter without the knowledge or consent of either his wife or daughter.
As a girl was often torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior, abduction can be seen as the equivalent of rape. After all, men were taking young girls to be their wives, that is to say, the begetters of their sons. Indeed, some military campaigns were undertaken for the express purpose of rape; many Ionians and Pelasgians (early Greeks) were said to have gotten their wives in that manner.
Furthermore, in patriarchal ancient Greece, marriage was virilocal. In other words, the young girls—most of whom were sixteen years of age or younger—were forced to reside in their new husband’s family home, which could be a great distance from their original home. This meant having contact with their own family members after their marriage was a rare occurrence.
Consequently, Demeter’s sense of powerlessness against the abduction, and the suffering that ensued at the loss of her daughter, could resonate for most women of ancient Greece.
Mother grieving for daughter

Demeter Mourning Persephone

Additionally, although males are present in the account, it is a woman’s story. All the major roles are played by females, and the areas of concern: marriage, agriculture and sacrifice are indubitably in the feminine domain. To be sure, the dark bargain made by the male deities is a misbegotten one, as the union produces no child and nearly brings an end to the life of the planet. Indeed, although their actions drive the events, Zeus and Hades are remote shadows, whose dark force propels the dissonance felt by mother and daughter.
At its most fundamental level the Hymn is a story about a mother’s grief at the loss of her beloved daughter. Told from the perspective of the mother; it is more Demeter’s story than Persephone’s. At once powerless and inconsolable, Demeter appears more mortal than divine. Suffering profoundly due to the actions of males, Demeter is initially impotent to set things right. It is this sense of helplessness that sets off her sorrow at the loss of Persephone, mirroring the anguish that must have been felt by mortal mothers who lost their daughters to marriage each day.
Although both are parents to Persephone, Demeter’s bereavement is in marked contrast to that of Zeus, who had initiated her abduction in the first place. Bargaining with the lord of the underworld, who most would view as an agent of death; Zeus is indifferent to his daughter’s banishment into the land of the dead. In other words, he is disinterested in his daughter’s fate. Though immortal, Persephone is spirited away from the living cosmos and is compelled to live in the realm of the underworld for eternity.
Indeed, is Persephone’s marriage not a sort of death? Seen as a transition, the marriage of a maiden was viewed by many as a symbolic form of death.
But it is Demeter who does something never seen before in Greek mythology – she dares to defy the will of Zeus. Moreover, not only does she live to tell the tale but she very nearly wins the battle. After all, for the majority of the year Persephone lives with her mother in the light of her mother’s earthly domain. Though life can never return to the way it was before the abduction, most mortal women could envy Demeter’s achievement. In this way, the Hymn was liberating for ancient women, an example of a mother’s triumph over all else.

The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by July 20, 2018

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. Only one year later, his father would be killed in World War I. Camus was raised by his mother in extreme poverty. At the age of 25, Camus traveled to France where he would develop into a highly successful author and existential philosopher. He was involved with the French resistance during the Occupation of Paris during World War II. Editing and writing many underground newspapers during this time, Camus would attempt to undermine the Nazi control of Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, only to die tragically in a car crash three years later.
Photo of Albert Camus

Albert Camus

In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a corner stone on which to build his unique school of existential thought. Following some of the teachings of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Camus’ philosophy would later become known as Absurdism. Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
“The Absurd” is the feeling that Camus describes when we are forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of our existence. It is the uneasy realization that all purpose we may believe we have does not exist out there in the universe, but only in our own hearts and minds. And so life is an endless struggle to perform tasks that are essentially meaningless; we are born into this world, we fight vainly for understanding, and we are eventually sealed away by death.
It is not hard to see how Camus would find inspiration for this thinking from the myth of Sisyphus. The unfortunate mortal is unduly bound to his boulder. He will suffer for all eternity, straining all the while to perform a task that serves no purpose and inevitably must be repeated. It is this realization that would prompt a human being to tackle what Albert Camus considers the most important philosophical question. He poses this fundamental problem, rather bluntly, within the first few lines of his essay…
“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” -Albert Camus (The Myth Of Sisyphus)
Photo of the philosopher Camus

Albert Camus

It is important to remember that Camus is not necessarily advocating suicide, but he does admit to consider it, at least partially, to be justified when faced with the absurdity of life. Camus writes that any healthy man is capable of considering the possibility of suicide, even if he never acts on it. And much like Hamlet when he muses “to be or not to be…”, Albert Camus makes an eloquent consideration for the prospects of taking ones own life. Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words…
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self reflection that we are happiest. By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
Shakespeare quote

To be or not to be…

To accentuate this point, Camus retells the horrors of Oedipus. A man who tried to outrun fate, he inadvertently falls prey to it. It is only near his final hours, when he is blind and broken, does he cry out “…all is well”. Oedipus has accepted his condition, accepted his actions as his own. And he is free. Camus points to this as the recipe for victory for the absurd hero. He writes… “Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism”.
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair. It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say ‘All is well’…