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The Flood and the Arc of Deucalion

by March 29, 2022

by Nicole Saldarriaga, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Name this man: when warned that the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed by an enormous flood, he—the only pious man worth saving—and his wife built an ark, in which they both survived the flood. After the waters receded, and once the ark had come aground on the top of a mountain, he and his wife gave thanks for their salvation and proceeded to repopulate the earth.

If you guessed the biblical Noah, then you’re only half wrong. The description above could in fact be perceived as a rough sketch of Noah’s story, found in the first book of the Bible, but in this case I’m not talking about Noah—I’m talking about Deucalion.
Deucalion was surviving divine floods before it was cool
Let’s backtrack a little. Creation myths are, as the name suggests, largely symbolic stories that narrate the creation of the world and the human species. Almost every culture has its own version of an ancient creation myth (some taken more seriously than others). Ancient Greek culture in particular has several creation myths with which we are relatively familiar, thanks to middle-school “Social Studies” lessons about the Greek pantheon (not to mention popular culture, and/or websites like this one!).

Deucalion has a major role to play in the creation myths of Ancient Greece, but before we can talk about his contribution, we need to briefly take a look at his father, the much more famous Prometheus.
The Benefactor of Mankind
Prometheus is known in the myths (many of which are preserved in texts such as Hesiod’s Theogony and Ovid’s Metamorphoses) as the creator of mankind. Though the details vary across sources, it is generally agreed upon that Prometheus, though he was a Titan, was not punished by the Olympian gods (Zeus, etc.) after they seized power because he (and his brother, Epimetheus) had chosen not to fight in the war between the Titans and Olympians.

Zeus then gave the two brothers the task of populating the Earth. Epimetheus created the animals, happily (and somewhat recklessly) endowing them with gifts like swiftness, hard shells, claws, and more—in fact, by the time Prometheus had finished forming man out of clay, there were no gifts left to give him. Seeing that this was the case, Prometheus decided to fashion man in the image of the gods—he gave man the ability to walk upright, so that he could keep his gaze on the heavens, he gave man the gift of reason, and (this is, of course, the gift for which Prometheus is most famous) gave man the gift of fire, without which mankind could never have survived.
Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger
Prometheus Brings Fire by Heinrich Friedrich Füger

Prometheus giving the gift of fire

Some sources say that Zeus had already taken fire away from mankind, and that Prometheus stole it back, or that Zeus had never wanted humans to have fire in the first place—either way, Prometheus defied him, and was horrifically punished: he was chained to a rock, where he would be defenseless against the eagle that slowly picked out and ate his liver over the course of the day. At night, his liver would grow back, and in the morning the whole grisly process would start again.

So, thanks to the valiant Prometheus, man was made out of clay and, with the gift of fire, was able to grow and flourish and form civilization—but, so the legend goes, mankind also began to quickly fall into a state of utter depravity. Zeus (never a fan of humankind to begin with) was appalled by their behavior, and by the time Lycaon, the king of Arcadia (in an effort to test whether Zeus was really omniscient) killed his own young son and served the boy’s cooked flesh to the god at a banquet, Zeus’ patience had already worn thin. Enraged by Lycaon’s degenerate actions, Zeus made the decision to destroy all of mankind.

After all, why bother throwing out the bad apples when you can just as easily burn the whole orchard?!
I Never Liked Those Human Anyway…
According to Ovid, Zeus almost destroyed humankind by barraging the Earth with lightning bolts, but stopped when he realized that the resulting fire would probably destroy all of creation. Instead, he chose a punishment that would wipe out the humans, without causing much permanent damage to the earth itself: a flood. He and Poseidon worked together to create a sudden and massively destructive flood, with Zeus controlling the storm clouds and Poseidon commanding the rivers and oceans to overflow. The entire ordeal lasted about nine days, and by the time the waters receded, all of mankind had drowned.

All, that is, except one married couple: Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha. Some sources say that, because of Deucalion’s piety and loyalty to the gods, he was warned (either by his father or by one of the Olympian gods) about the flood, and told to build a sturdy ark. Other sources (like the Metamorphoses) imply that Deucalion and his wife simply got lucky, managed to find a boat, and were allowed to live because they humbly gave thanks to the gods for their survival.
Deucalion and Pyrrha in the boat
Deucalion and Pyrrha in the boat
Their little boat ran aground on the only dry spot on earth: the very top of Mount Parnassus (though the mountain differs from source to source). As the waters receded and the elderly couple abandoned the boat, they were suddenly faced with the daunting realization that it would be their job to repopulate the earth.

Understandably terrified by this prospect, they decided to ask the “goddess of prophecy,” Themis, for advice. They travelled to the site of her oracle and prayed for guidance. Moved by their piety, Themis gave them this divine message:
Leave this sanctuary, cover your heads and ungirdle your garments, then cast the bones of your mighty mother behind your backs. (Ovid, 1.382-383).

After a few moments of confusion (in which Deucalion and Pyrrha were rather shocked at the unholy prospect of disrespecting their mothers’ bones), they realized that Themis meant their common mother, Mother Earth. Deucalion reasoned that the bones of Mother Earth must be the stones on the ground, and so they followed the divine advice and threw stones over their shoulders. All the stones thrown by Deucalion transformed into men, and all the stones thrown by Pyrrha transformed into women; and so, says Ovid,
…our race is a hard one; we work by the sweat of our brow, and bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin (1. 414-415).

In this way, Deucalion and Pyrrah were able to repopulate the earth—and, even in their old age, they were also blessed with their own children, many of which came to be regarded as extremely important in the creation myths of Greece. In fact, one of their children, a boy named Hellen, is considered the mythical ancestor of the entire Greek race, and is the origin of the demonym, “Hellenes,” by which the Greek people are still known.

So there you go, dear reader, I hope you now have something to talk about over dinner!

Alcestis: The Least Tragic Tragedy

by December 5, 2021

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
What do you think of when hear the words “Greek tragedy”?
I’ll bet that the images that spring to mind tend to be dark and dramatic. Yet not all tragedies fit this preconception. Not all tragedies are quite so…. Tragic.
For instance, there were the Satyr plays. In ancient Greece, tragedies were staged in trilogies, accompanied by an additional play in a separate genre, the Satyr play. These were much more comedic and farcical in nature than the sometimes austere world of tragedy. In honour of the god Dionysus, centaurs drank and caroused, causing mischief and chaos in irreverent settings. Only one of these plays has been handed down to us, the Cyclops, once more by Euripides, which is a playful retelling of Odysseus’ encounter with the one-eyed Polyphemus. It is from these plays such as these that we get the word satire.
There is, however, another play that is neither comedy, tragedy, nor satyr play. It is a unique blend of all these forms, and yet utterly unlike anything else handed down from the ancients. The story has more in common with a fairy-tale than many of its peers in the corpus of Greek tragedy. It is Alcestis.
Of the three Greek tragedians, Euripides is by far the most unconventional, frequently challenging the norms and conventions of the form. It is from these experiments that a play as unusual but ultimately moving as Alcestis emerges.
Unlike the more familiar stories of the Theban Oedipus cycle or the unhappy tales of the House of Atreus, Alcestis deals with a lesser known, more unusual branch of Greek mythology. Alcestis tells the story of the title character and her husband, Admetus. Due to a complicated mythical backstory, the god Apollo was forced to work as a labourer. During this humbling experience, Admetus, the human king of Thessaly, treated the diminished god with great kindness.
The god, eager to repay a human kindness, has arranged a special favour for Admetus. He is granted the chance to live a longer life than he had been allotted by the Fates, and in doing so, frustrate death. Yet, this gift comes with a cost.
The play begins with a conversation between Apollo and Death (or Thanatos in Greek). Thanatos is eager to the reclaim what Apollo has denied him: someone now has to die in Admetus’ place. Admetus’ father refuses to do so, and so Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, chooses to die in her husband’s place. Much of the early part of the play is dedicated to the household’s anticipation of Alcestis’ death. As is typical of Euripides, situations are inversed: someone still alive is being mourned.
Alcestis dies, and Admetus is wracked by grief and despair. Yet, despite this, hope may yet remain with the arrival of Heracles, Alcestis being one of a number of tragedies featuring the demigod. Here, he is characterised very differently to how he appears elsewhere in tragedy. In Alcestis, Heacles is as a dim-witted, yet kindly party boy.
Wood engraving of the death of Alcestis
Wood engraving of the death of Alcestis
Heracles is blissfully unaware that his friend Admetus is in mourning; he arrives eager to drink, party and have fun. Admetus decides to not burden his guest with the sad news. The world of the Satyr play and Tragedy now collide in a way that enhances each other. The starkness of Admetus’ grieving for his wife is set against the oblivious, fun-loving Heracles, to great effect.
Whenever Heracles does discover the truth, the demi-god realizes that he is, in fact, uniquely qualified to deal with the situation, being one of a very small group of Greek heroes who can travel to the Underworld. Eager to help his grieving friend, Heracles exits the scene to go and retrieve his friend’s wife from Hades.
What follows is one of the most moving scenes in Greek theatre. Herakles returns to the party with a veiled woman in tow. He offers her to Admetus as a new wife, but the grieving King finds this highly inappropriate. Eventually he is goaded, against his judgement in to seeing just who it is beneath the veil…
King Admetus recognises Alcestis, who has been led from the underworld by Hercules
King Admetus recognises Alcestis, who had been led from the underworld by Hercules
Considering that the play begins with a conversation between Apollo and Death, it ends on a very human emotion: the joy of reunion. For all the grandeur of the mythic backdrop and quarrelling divinities, the Alcestis is, at core, about the love between a married couple.
It is the earliest play we have by Euripides, having been staged in 438 BCE. Considering how much ancient literature is lost, it is a gift that this strange, tragi-comic fairy-tale can still resonate.