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Power and Fate: The Aristocrats in the Iliad

by December 3, 2019

By Rodrigo Ferreyra, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We are all familiar with Homer’s Iliad. We know about the Trojan War, the romance between Paris and Helen and the mighty Olympian gods. Most of all, we know the heroes. Whether it is Achilles, Odysseus or Ajax, they all possess outstanding characteristics such as bravery, physical skill, and virtue.
But we must also acknowledge that these Homeric heroes did not enjoy these attributes by mere chance. They, in fact, were conceived in this way as embodying another group of individuals, one which was to be portrayed as close to the gods.
In Homer’s Greek, Heroes meant lord, that is, the ruling class. In this way, the heroes were to some extent god-like, looking down on commoners, just as deities looked down on mortals.
Achilles Statue

Wellington Monument (Achilles)

The gods of the Iliad are also anthropomorphic, matching a rational and human notion of the divinity. Yet, unlike us humans, these gods are not tied to fate. In the Homeric notion of fate, all human beings have their “good” and “bad” experiences predestined by birth, as well as their limitations as mortals. In this way, fate is inevitable, and trying to go against it is but an insolence to the gods.
But what about heroes/aristocrats? Well, it is in their fate to excel, as they do in the Iliad, both in leading their troops and in combat. Nonetheless, they are also fated to death. The goddess Hera says to Achilles:


your fate still stays the same, to die in war,
killed by a mortal and a god.

To which he responds:

I know well enough I’m fated to die here,
far from my loving parents. No matter.
I will not stop till I have driven the Trojans
to the limit of what they can endure in war.

Achilles’ approach to facing his fate matches the death for which aristocrats wished. This was a manly, beautiful, and valiant death in battle: the so-called kalos kagathos. It is in their fate to achieve it. The nobles, after all, are inferior to the gods, who in turn, appear jealous of these mortals’ bravery.
Athena Statue

Athena Statue

At the same time, in the Iliad heroes can even succeed (although shortly) in transgressing their limitations as mortals. For instance, the Achaean hero Diomedes, with the help of the gods, goes as far as hurting Aphrodite and Ares. As something unthinkable for a mortal to do, Diomedes’ transgression of his fate implies him to have great power. As such, only a very few capable, powerful individuals can transgress their mortal limitations. Who? The heroes, that is, the aristocracy.
In this sense, “fate” in the Iliad is also present with another message: to keep in line those who dare against the ruling class. We are said that not everyone is equal. The composition of the Iliad coincided with a warrior noble class that controlled both the Greek land and wealth.
Homer Singing for the People

Homer Singing for the People

This was certainly a message they wanted to communicate not to us, but to their community. The Iliad, as well as the other parts of the “Epic Cycle”, came from an oral tradition. On the one hand, the poem’s structure is made to be read aloud and reach a wide and illiterate audience; on the other, these poems contain and communicate, above all, tradition. As such, the narrative seeks to show the story not as a past event, but as a mirror to the present world, the very same in which its listeners live.
In this way, the aristocratic presence in the Iliad is not a minor component. It underlies the very culture on which the poem was conceived and to which we must dive into to understand both the story and people who heard it.

Perseus: The Original Hero

by October 30, 2019

By Katherine Smyth, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Of divine conception, saved from certain death, and raised to manhood by his mother, Perseus’ life was never destined to be boring. But just who is the man behind the myth, and how did he achieve such legendary status? Keep reading and you’ll discover just who this hero really is.
The Name Behind the Man
Scholars have discussed the origin of Perseus’ name for years. Some assert that it is of Proto-Indo-European origin, others that it is closely linked to the name of the Goddess of Death, Persephone. But why should a young man carry such association? Well, his name is fitting if Robert Graves’ theory is correct, that πέρθειν (pérthein) means “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”. Meanwhile, Carl Darling Buck’s assertion that -eus is a suffix to create an agent noun, and thus Pers-eus becomes a sacker of cities…and Perseus definitely devastated the world around him as the classical world’s first recognizable warrior.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

A Divine Conception
So, how did he become this formidable warrior? Well, Perseus’ arrival into the world may sound a little familiar. As with many kings of his time, Acrisius, King of Argos, was fixated with having a male heir. Unfortunately for him, the Fates saw fit to give him only daughters. Danae, Perseus’ mother, was one of two daughters to the King of Argos and the only legitimate offspring.
Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi regarding his predicament and was told that the son of his daughter would one day kill him. Incensed at this news, he then imprisoned his virgin daughter Danae in the palace, inside a bronze chamber open only to the sky. However, Danae was a woman of extraordinary beauty and she had caught the eye of Zeus, who then came to her in a shower of gold. Thus, Perseus was conceived by divine means.
Rembrandt's Danaë, c. 1636.

Rembrandt’s Danaë, c. 1636.

In time, the boy-child was born and Acrisius began to panic. Fearful of offending the great god Zeus, he chose not to kill the child; instead he cast both mother and child into the sea in a wooden box and left their fate to Poseidon. Whilst the waves lapped at the sides of the box, Danae prayed to the gods to be spared and was shortly, thereafter, washed ashore on the island of Seriphos. Dictys, a local fisherman, rescued the stranded mother and child, gave them shelter and helped raise Perseus to manhood.
Destiny Awaits
Once Perseus was grown his life took a turn that only the Fates could foresee. Whilst Dictys was a trustworthy man who respected Danae, his brother, Polydectes the King of Seriphos, was less than honorable. Perseus, fearing for his mother’s safety, kept the king from her door. Angered and feeling slighted, Polydectes hatched a plan to rid himself of the youth and bed Danae.
Perseus and the Sea Nymphs

Perseus and the Sea Nymphs (The Arming of Perseus) by SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES (1833-1898)

Polydectes organized a great party and the invitation was more of a summons with an extravagant gift as a requirement. What was the price of attendance? Horses, something Polydectes knew Perseus did not have. He also knew the young man would not offend the king by refusing to attend. To avoid punishment for his inability to present the requisite gift, Perseus asked Polydectes to name a gift he would accept as a substitute. Polydectes’ trap was a success; he asked the impetuous youth to get him the head of the mortal Gorgon Medusa, the woman whose gaze turned mankind to stone on the instant.
The Legend Sets Forth
Luckily for our young hero, Athena gave Perseus information on how to locate the Hesperides; the nymphs who cared for Hera’s orchard and the keepers of the weapons he’d need to defeat Medusa. In order to secure these weapons, however, Perseus would have to extract their location from the Greae; sisters of the Gorgons who had only one eye and one tooth which they shared between them.

Perseus with the Sisters of the Gorgon

Perseus, being an agile young man, snatched the eye mid-air from the Graea and held it ransom for the location of the Hesperides. Once the information was gained, he handed the eye back the perpetual crones. The Hesperides gave Perseus a kibisis, or knapsack, to hold Medusa’s head once he’d killed her. Zeus armed his son with an adamantine sword, along with Hades’ helmet of darkness – which Zeus ‘borrowed’ – so that Perseus could sneak up on Medusa. Hermes and Athena also helped Perseus on his quest by loaning him winged sandals and a polished shield respectively. Thus armed, Perseus sought his quarry.
Into the darkness of the cave Perseus crept. There he discovered Medusa sleeping, viewing her slumbering form as a reflection in his shield. With a swift stroke Perseus severed Medusa’s head from her body and snatched the bundle of snake-hair into the kibisis before fleeing from the scene. The story of Pegasus and Chrysoar begin from this bloody-thirsty episode; both the winged-horse and golden-sworded son were born from the bleeding neck of the Gorgon.

Perseus and Medusa Vase, Attic Red figure, ca. 460 B.C

Now, with the head of Medusa safely in the bag, Perseus set off to return to the island of Seriphos. On the way he stopped at Aethiopia, where he met King Cephus and Queen Cassiopeia, a woman who was not burdened with humility, and their beautiful daughter, Andromeda.
The King and Queen had insulted Poseidon and his offspring due to boasting of their daughter’s great and unmatched beauty that was far superior to that of the nymphs. As such, their land was being flooded as punishment and the only way to appease the sea god was to kill Andromeda by feeding her to Cetus, Poseidon’s pet monster.
This is the predicament that met Perseus on his arrival, and being the hero that he was, he intercepted Cetus and killed the beast before taking Andromeda as his wife. Andromeda sailed happily away with Perseus to Tiryns in Argos, and eventually became the ancestress of the royal family who ruled the kingdom of Perseidae, through her son Perses.
Perseus and Andromeda

The Doom Fulfilled, 1888, Southampton City Art Gallery, part of a series of paintings revolving around Perseus, created by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones

Not forgetting his mother’s plight, Perseus then returned to Seriphos, and discovered that Polydectes advances had become violent. His mother was now forced to hide in mountain caves to escape the King. Perseus sought out Polydectes, and killed him on-sight by showing him the bounty of his quest: Medusa’s head. With Polydectes turned to stone, and his mother safe, Perseus made Dictys the new King with his mother as consort.
With his mother protected and happy, Perseus then returned his magical aides to their owners, and gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who then set it upon Zeus’ shield, which she was charged with keeping. It is perhaps this respect that Perseus showed Athena that ensured honor to Andromeda upon her death; she was placed in the heavens as a constellation, near her husband and mother.

Andromeda Galaxy

Prophecy Fulfilled
Perseus then returned with his wife to Argos. There are several variations of how Perseus fulfills the prophecy of slaying his grandfather. One is that upon hearing of his grandson’s return and approach, Acrisius exiled himself to Pelasgiotis (Thessaly). There, the King of Larissa, Teutamides, holds funeral games for his father and they are interrupted when Perseus accidentally kills Acrisius during the discus event.
Another version has it that Acrisius’ twin brother, Proetus, drove the King into exile after seizing the kingdom. Perseus turns his uncle to stone with the Gorgon’s head and restores his grandfather to the throne. However, Acrisius insults Perseus by stating that the hero lied, Perseus then shows the king the head and the prophecy is fulfilled.
The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse

The third version is that Perseus did not return to Argos, instead that he went to Larissa. There, at the funeral games, he displayed his newly invented game called ‘quoits’ and an errant ring flew loose striking King Acrisius; it killed him instantly and fulfilled the prophecy.
Now with Acrisius dead, Perseus was by default the next King. But, as he was also responsible for his death, he was unable to inherit due to manslaughter laws and a guilty conscious. Rather than go into exile himself and abandon his people, Perseus swapped his throne in Argos with his cousin’s throne in Tiryns. With both kingdoms then safe under the rule of the cousins, life settled down for Perseus, at least for a little while.
Sadly, Megapenthes, son of Proetus, could not forgive and forget the family rivalry over the kingdom of Argos. After many years of peace, Megapenthes sought out his cousin and avenged the death of his father Proetus. This act of aggression, unfortunately, catapulted the two families into several generations of disputes, battles and persecutions that would eventually leave the kingdom of Argos to a distant third family line.

Perseus Turning Phineus and his followers to Stone, by Luca Giordano

Perseus’ Legacy
As a legacy, Perseus was the great-grandfather of Heracles, by his son Electryon, and became the progenitor of the Persian peoples by his son Perses. He has been portrayed as a rider of the tamed Pegasus, where he replaced Bellephron since classical times, and of course, as the constellation that bears his name that still watches over us from the northern sky.
So, whilst the origin of his name may remain shrouded in mystery, the hero Perseus certainly left his mark on ancient Greece and western civilization at large. Son of the god of all gods Zeus, he protected his blessed mother and was a hero to his nation, and the progenitor of one of mythology’s greatest heroes. Perseus truly is the Original Hero.

Memnon: the Mythical King of the Ethiopians

by October 7, 2019

One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.
Memnon on an Attic Vase

Memnon on an Attic Vase 5th century BC

Origin of Memnon
Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.
Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.
As a warrior, he was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Some stories claimed that he conquered great swathes of the east. He was considered to be a very handsome man and possessed all the masculine virtues. It appears that he maintained close ties with the home city of his father. At some point Memnon married a Trojan Queen, Troana Ilium.
Memnon and Achilles fighting

Memnon and Achilles fighting on 4th-century Greek vase

Little is known about the early life of the great hero because the epic poems based on his life have sadly been lost.
Memnon and the Trojan War
When Achilles killed Hector, it appeared that Troy, without its great champion was doomed. Priam, the King of Troy implored the Gods to help him and his people in their darkest hour. The Gods heard his pleas and told Memnon to leave Ethiopia to fight the Achaeans. According to a post-Homeric account of the Trojan War, the Ethiopian king traveled to Troy with a huge army. This included specialist units and soldiers that all had ‘a terrifying warlike appearance’. He and his men were so numerous that they had to camp outside the walls of the city because it could not accommodate them all.
Memnon and the Trojans attacked the Greeks and a brutal battle ensued. The Ethiopian king was described as riding in a chariot and killing many Greeks. Then in many accounts, Memnon dueled with Antilochus, the son of Nestor. After single combat Memnon killed Antilochus, who was considered to be one of the greatest warriors in all of Greece.
The walls of Troy

The walls of Troy

After the death of Antilochus, the Greek army panicked and was driven back almost to their ships; it seemed that they were on the verge of a complete defeat. Then along came mighty Achilles and he challenged Memnon to single combat. The two great heroes were evenly matched. While the two were both the favorites of the Gods, the Olympians agreed not to help one or the other.
In the fight, Achilles was simply too quick and strong for Memnon. He was able to thrust his spear through the shield of the Ethiopian King, pierce his side and then he finish him off with a thrust of his sword to the throat. With the death of their leader, the mighty Ethiopian army fled in terror. According to legend, some stayed with their king to bury him and they were turned into birds that would remove the dust from their dead lord’s tomb.
Bust of Memnon

Bust of Memnon

One story relates that the Gods collected all the spilled blood of the hero and turned it into a mighty river. On the anniversary of his death, it would turn red.
According to another tradition, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so moved by the tears of the goddess of the Dawn that he raised Memnon from the dead and he became become immortal.
The legend of Memnon
Both the Romans and the Greeks revered him. He was the subject of many works of art. Memnon’s image appeared on vases and there are many sculptures depicting the great Ethiopian. Tragically, a Greek epic poem on his death has been largely lost, and we only have fragments of the work.
There are many who believe that Memnon was possibly based on an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some academics argue that instead it was one of the Nubian kings from the Kushite Dynasty, that ruled Egypt for over a century. Others still think that he was based on the great Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep III.
Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

When the Romans conquered Egypt, they believed that many of the statues of Pharaohs represented Memnon. The statues of Amenhotep III, of the 18th Dynasty, were called the Colossi of Memnon by the Romans. One of these statues was believed to have made sounds when struck by the light of dawn.

Griffith, R. D. (1998). The origin of Memnon. Classical Antiquity, 17(2), 212-234.
Cline, E. H. (2013). The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction (Vol. 356). Oxford University Press.

Hector (The Iliad)

by September 18, 2019


Known From: The Iliad

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

Achilles and Hector

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

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

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

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

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

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

The myth of Jason and the Argonauts

by July 16, 2019

Imagine a group of superheroes, each with their own special power, traveling around on wild, improbable adventures. There is the guy who can fly, another with super strength and yet another fellow with a secret, unbeatable weapon. And of course there is also the captain of the team, usually an “all around good guy” who’s almost an everyman… if it wasn’t for his quick-witted thinking and problem solving.
This is the Argonauts, a fantastic ancient Greek gang, complete with a cool name and trusty boat to speed them on their way.
myth of jason and the argonauts

Jason and the Argonauts

The main man leading the group is Jason. In his cadre of killers are famous myth makers such as the Boreads (sons of Boreas, the North Wind) who could fly, Heracles, Philoctetes, Peleus, Telamon, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux, Atalanta, and Euphemus.
Their mission? To help Jason take his rightful place as king. To accomplish this quest, however, the band of heroes must fetch the golden fleece…. which is hung from a tree in the grove of the Colchian Ares, guarded night and day by a dragon that never sleeps.
Back up a minute.. you might say. A golden fleece? A displaced price? A fire breathing dragon? How did this all happen in the first place? How did our greek myth get to this fantastic junction point, filled with monsters, martyrs and missions?
It began, like many great stories, with a power struggle. Not pleased at being second to the throne, our stereotypical baddie, Pelias, killed his half-brother and rightful king, Aeson. Not only that, Pelias murdered all of Aeson’s descendents to be rid of his competition.
Jason and the argonauts slay the dragon
After the familial slaughtering, Pelias was still worried that one day he would be overthrown. He consulted with an oracle to be certain and was dismayed at the news: Be wary of the man with one sandal.
Unfortunately for Pelias, the oracle was right. Aeson’s infant son, Jason, miraculously survived.
When the executions began, Jason’s mother ordered the women to cluster around the baby and cry as if he was still-born. Thus they successfully deceived the wrathful uncle that he was not alive. Afterwards she sent Jason away to be educated with the centaur Chiron, knowing his life would be in danger if Pelias found out the truth.
Jason grew up to be a strong, capable man who was determined to return to his hometown and take back his rightful throne.
One day Pelias decided to throw a few games in honor of his alleged father, the god Poseidon. This was the perfect opportunity for Jason to visit. On the way, he crossed a river to help an old woman (who, fantastically enough, was the goddess Hera) and he lost his shoe. When Jason was announced as the man with one sandal, the fearful uncle knew the time had come. Pelias could not kill his nephew, however, in front of all the gathered kings and spectators, so he sent Jason on a misson, one he thought was impossible to accomplish…
The myth of Jason and the argonauts starts with the boat The Argo

The Argo (ca. 1500-1530), painting by Lorenzo Costa

He told Jason this: “To take my throne, which you shall, you must go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece.” Jason happily accepted.
Jason then assembled his super team of monster vanquishing men, and embarked in their famous ship, the Argo. Their first stop? The island of Lemnos, known for the foul smelling, men-killing women who inhabit the place.
And so, the myth of Jason and the Argonauts began…

Spotlight on Heroes: Achilles

by June 10, 2019

Known From: The Iliad

Notable Quotes about Achilles:
 “Sing Goddess, Achilles’ rage, 
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark” 
“For my mother the goddess, silver-footed Thetis, tells me that twofold fates are bearing me toward the doom of death: if I abide here and play my part in the siege of Troy, then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable; but if I return home to my dear native land, lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.”
The Hero

Statue of Achilles in London

Achilles is the central character and most ferocious warrior in Homer’s classic epic The Iliad. He is often portrayed as being a mighty warrior who is often filled with grief and remorse. The grief and suffering of Achilles is recounted several times throughout the poem and is often cited as one of the major themes.
Achilles was born to the sea nymph Thetis and the mortal king  PeleusHe was raised by the centaur Chiron and taught to be a great warrior. As a young man he ate the innards of lions and wild boars. It was predicted by Achilles’ teacher that he would be a fierce fighter who would kill many men and sack many cities.
In The Iliad, Achilles is found to be in conflict with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. His feud with Agamemnon is caused by the theft of Briseis, whom Achilles believes is his rightful trophy of war. Achilles is so angered that he considers leaving Troy and returning home.

Achilles Laments the death of his friend

Before Achilles can make the trip back, his dear friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, the Prince of Troy. Achilles is so distraught by the death of his friend that he quickly forgets his thoughts of home and pursues Hector on the battlefield. Achilles finds Hector and slays him outside the Walls of Troy. Achilles then drags the body of Hector behind his chariot as he circles the city.
Achilles is eventually killed by an arrow to the heel from the bow of ParisThis is revealed to be his weakness. He is cremated and his ashes are put in an urn… along with the ashes of his dear friend Patroclus.
Read more about Achilles here