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The All Seeing Greek but Overlooked God: Helios

by October 18, 2018

By Alicia McDermott, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
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. His book, The Plague, written in 1947, is particularly relevant today. 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’…

The Realm of Poseidon: A Mythical Voyage Around the Aegean

by May 23, 2018

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
The sea
In ships.”
~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.
Poseidon and Athena

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens – Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512). ( Public Domain )

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.
Zeus, Poseidon and Hades

The Greek Trinity: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades — gods of heavens, sea, and underworld. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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.
Heraion Temple

The priestess of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece. ( Public Domain )

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.
Aegean Voyage
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.
Map of the Aegean Sea

Historic map (1528) of Aegean Sea by geographer Piri Reis. ( Public Domain )

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

Hades and the Kingdom of the Dead

by October 29, 2015

HadesBy Nicole Saldarriaga
There were many things an Ancient Greek could fear. After all, there were capricious and vengeful gods to appease, and no small list of monsters and mythical creatures to haunt their nightmares. However, there is one being that many Ancient Greeks feared most of all—in fact, most people wouldn’t even dare to speak his name or the name of his horrifying realm—Hades and his underground Kingdom of the Dead.
This seems like a no-brainer, right? If there’s anything that human beings seem to fear (whether they do so consciously or not), it’s death. It’s no surprise that Hades, as the god of death, would not only be feared but also avoided as much as possible. Other than a few noteworthy exceptions, Hades—unlike his divine brothers and sisters—was not depicted much in ancient artwork, did not have many temples constructed in his name, and was generally not worshipped as regularly or by as many people. I mean, if you find it terrifying even to say a god’s name, it may understandably be difficult to hold feast days in his honor.
Hades brothersZeus, Poseidon, and Hades
All told, this may seem like just another example of Hades drawing the short stick—and in this case that’s not an idiom. After Zeus forced his father, Cronos, to disgorge Zeus’ brothers and sisters (whom he had swallowed in order to circumvent any threats to his power), and after Cronos’ children overthrew his rule as supreme god, Zeus and his two brothers—Poseidon and Hades—drew lots to decide which realms they would rule. Normally, according to Greek law, the eldest brother (which in this case was Hades) would have been granted the biggest and best kingdom; but Hades was cheated out of his rightful place and title as king of the gods by the drawing of lots (though it seems like an arbitrary system, it was a customary solution to difficult decision-making issues). He drew the shortest stick, and therefore had to accept the twisted, dark, Underworld as his realm while his youngest brother became king of the gods and erected his kingdom in the sky. Top that off with the fact that most people were too afraid of him to worship him, and it seems like the eldest of the Olympians got a pretty rough deal.
CerberusCerberus, Hades’ guard-dog
On some level it’s easy to understand why Hades wasn’t very well liked as a god, or at least why the Ancient Greeks would have wanted to keep him at a distance. As ruler of the Underworld, he was heavily associated with death (though he is not Death incarnate—there was another god for that, named Thanatos), and your average mortal human isn’t usually comfortable thinking about death too seriously. The Ancient Greeks in particular had a lot to fear from death. The Underworld was a notoriously harsh place full of terrifying creatures like Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed guard dog, the grotesque Furies, and the Hekatonkheirs (giants which had one hundred hands and fifty heads), just to name a few; and while the Underworld did include a paradise called the Elysian fields, that balmy and beautiful place was reserved for only the most heroic of figures. Everyone else ended up in the Fields of Asphodel—a grey and uninteresting limbo where the shades of the average Joes and Janes wandered aimlessly for all eternity—or in Tartarus, where the evil were punished for their behavior in life by some truly creative methods of torture.
Even more terrifying to the average Ancient Greek was the way in which death could affect the world of the living. Not only was the death of a loved one associated with the pain of loss and loneliness, but it was also riddled with anxiety. Customary burial rites were very specific and important—it was believed that performing them incorrectly could lead to disaster for both the spirit of the deceased and for those left behind.
CharonA popular example of this is that of the coin placed under the deceased’s tongue or on their eyelids. This coin was payment for Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld who took the shades of the newly dead across the River Styx and into the Underworld proper. If a shade had no coin with which to pay Charon, he would not be allowed to cross the Styx, and would never make it into Hades’ kingdom—instead he or she would be forced to wander the earth restlessly and might even haunt those who failed to perform the proper burial rites. This was a terrifying prospect for the Ancient Greeks, who not only wanted to avoid being haunted, but who also believed that the continual presence of shades on earth could actually drain life out of the living.
Clearly, there was a lot to fear in death; and Hades, as the King of Death, was not the most beloved figure in ancient mythology. However, with fear comes a certain amount of respect, and in many ways the dark and gloomy Hades got a lot of it.
EleusisArcheologists have found the ruins, located in the Greek town of Eleusis, of at least one temple that may have been dedicated to Hades and his queen, Persephone. Historical records indicate that though it did not happen as often as it did for other gods, Hades was, on occasion, ritually worshipped, and with a great deal of servile deference. Those who prayed to Hades would bang their hands or even their heads against the ground in order to get his attention, worshippers would avert their eyes or turn their whole heads away from statues and altars while making sacrifices of beautiful black animals, and special pits were dug in which the sacrificial blood was poured so that it would reach Hades more easily. After a while, because his proper name would not be spoken, Hades was referred to as Plouton, closely related to the Greek for “giver of wealth,” because he was thought to be responsible for the precious minerals found in the ground—he was thus venerated for a time as a god of wealth as well as a god of the Underworld.
It would seem, then, that despite Hades’ slightly unpopular reputation, he was never completely forgotten or ignored. The Ancient Greeks may have feared death and the Realm of the Dead in the extreme, but that also means that when they did have to address death, they were incredibly respectful of its power. It was, no doubt (and perhaps still is), an intensely complicated relationship with our own mortality. So maybe Hades didn’t get the rawest deal after all—he was the god of that thing that all of us fear (even if only slightly), that thing that keeps us up at night, that thing that has inspired countless philosophies which are supposed to release us from the fear of its grip. To some extent, humans never stop talking about death or the afterlife.
Maybe the eldest Olympian got the biggest kingdom after all.

Dionysus the Mild: Eater of Flesh

by April 9, 2015

By Ben Potter
As a figure of myth and superstition even in his own time, Dionysus could well have been dismissed by the cynical as being an unworthy interpolation into the field of true religion.
However, although “he represents an enchanted world and an extraordinary experience” (Albert Henrichs), the scope of his temporal power is hard to overstate.
The twice-born Dionysus is technically, like Heracles, a demigod, though unlike the twelve-time labourer, his godliness is dominant over his humanity.
Dionysus’ bizarre incubation started when Zeus impregnated Semele, the daughter of the Cadmus, king of Thebes.
Subsequently, Zeus’ (understandably) jealous wife, Hera, concocted a plan for revenge. She convinced Semele to request that she see Zeus in all his divine glory, knowing that the sight of the god would overload Semele’s frail, human form, causing instant incineration.
From these ashes, Zeus recovered Dionysus, sewing the charred and blackened foetus up in his thigh.
Thus the King of the Gods gave birth to Dionysus (a bizarre, but not unique feat – Athena was also born from Zeus’ fractured skull). The babe was then given to his human aunt, Ino, for safekeeping.
However, Hera, her spleen not yet fully vented, sent Ino and her family into a frenzy of madness and suicide. Thus, Dionysus was passed along to the nymphs of Mount Nysa (from where he gets his name) and there his induction into all things sublime, sensational, sexual, salacious and sinister started.
He self-proselytised across Greece, Asia and India, bringing madness and death upon those who denied him. The chief example of this was the poker-faced wrath he brought upon his cousin, Pentheus, King of Thebes, made famous to us through Euripides’ The Bacchae.
Though not all tales on Dionysus are dark or depraved.
A particularly charming story about him comes from the seventh Homeric hymn which recounts his capture by pirates. The unsuspecting brigands got more than they bargained for when the god’s bonds dropped off and he turned into a lion, all while a great vine grew around the ship’s mast.
Quite understandably, the pirates all jumped overboard, only to be turned into dolphins upon hitting the water.
For this and other tales, Dionysus is “perceived as both man and animal, male and effeminate, young and old, he is the most versatile and elusive of all Greek gods”. (Albert Henrichs).
Hermes and Infant Dionysus
Of course it is the vine motif that flashes first into our minds when we think about Dionysus.
Indeed, this aspect of his personality is represented in some of the most famous artwork of which he is the subject. For example, the seminal ‘Hermes and the infant Dionysus’ shows the older god dangling grapes over the head of the younger.
Likewise, this facet of the god was a regular feature in literature.
Among the earliest poets, it can be seen that the wine-giver holds a particular place of affection in the hearts of the poetical:
“Cut off all the grape clusters…show them to the sun for ten days…cover them for five, and on the sixth day draw off into vessels the gifts of joyful Dionysus.” (Hesiod, Works and Days).
Elsewhere, Hesiod refers to the god as ‘he of many delights’ and Homer, in the Iliad, calls him the ‘comforter of mankind’.
The following twist on that theme, from Euripides’ The Bacchae, will be of particular interest to those of us for whom Sunday is more than merely a day to watch football and mow the lawn:
“When mortals drink their fill of wine, the sufferings of our unhappy race are banished, each day’s troubles are forgotten in sleep. There is no other cure for sorrow. Dionysus, himself a god, is thus poured out in offering to the gods, so that through him come blessings on mankind”.

Though unlike Mr J.C. of Nazareth, Dionysus may well have been, quite astonishingly, a teetotaler.

Baby Dionysus
Although there are some Renaissance depictions of him imbibing his own gift, in antiquity this is not the case.
That said, he is almost invariably depicted close to wine, grapes, or drunkards; his entourage of satyrs are forever indulging in inebriated dancing, fornicating and revelling in general.
And if the satyrs represent all the naughty fun and frolics that go hand in hand with overindulgence, it is the maenads (or bacchae), female followers of the god, who lend things a dark and sinister air.
Maenads, on their annual pilgrimage to the mountains, would pay homage to the god by inducing in each other a ritualised frenzy, often described (by others) as a madness. Though commentators have often used drink or drugs to explain this away, contemporary accounts put it down to an infusion of the god into the body; perhaps a form of intense, liberating meditation.
Both in art and literature this mania culminates in the bare-handed rending of a live animal (sparagmos) and the raw consumption of its flesh (omophagia).
The once-popular idea that this carcass was a ritualised ingestion of the god himself is no longer in vogue (though remains to be convincingly refuted). The fact that Euripides interpolates King Pentheus into the role of sacrificial animal implies that cannibalism, though ghastly, does not seem to be wholly inappropriate.
Ignoring the god/man-eating aspect, the fact that the sacrificial meat was uncooked is a perverse act in and of itself and an example of how Dionysus revels in his role as disrupter of the social order.
This too is reflected in his public festivals, of which there were at least seven annually in Athens alone. Characteristics of these celebrations were excessive and open drunkenness, obscenity, lubriciousness and transvestitism; all amidst huge, decorative phalli that lend a je ne sais quoi to any event.
Along with wine, intoxication and ritual madness, Dionysus was also a god of theatre – comedy and tragedy reflecting perfectly the dichotomy within his soul – as well as masks, impersonation and, almost paradoxically, the afterlife.
Indeed, this aspect should not be belittled as he constantly crops up in funeral art. The pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, went as far as to say: “Dionysus, in whose honour they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same”.
So how are we supposed to view this internally incongruous, but undoubtedly important god?


Well, Dionysus is certainly a joke, but a joke borne of lust and power, of wine and spite, of ecstasy and shame.
His beauty and brutality are so pervasive that at times he is almost the embodiment of a last request; one final moment of frenzied delight before the trapdoor opens and the noose tightens.
He is death, blood, beauty, pain, art, ecstasy, elation, and envy; a man for whom one would gladly hold a feast day, perhaps without acknowledging the dreadful truth of what could potentially be on the menu.
Euripides certainly portrays him as a creature of horror and violence; one desirous of carrying out torture and humiliation.
Perhaps as one so cruel and beautiful, powerful and appetitive, he is not merely versatile, but strikes to the heart of our own divine empathy.
After all, there is barely a man who ever existed who doesn’t have something in common with Dionysus. And it may be this, more than anything else, that fascinates and repels in almost equal measure.