From the monthly archives: December 2011

Monday,  December 19th, 2011

Today’s myth of the week is one of my very favorites, though I didn’t discover it until college.  When I graduated from high school, my Latin teacher had given me a book of Sophocles’ tragedies as a gift, and I was steadily working my way through it. Somewhere in the middle, I came to one called “Philoctetes.“  Who?

This was before the days of Google, so I got out my trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary and learned that Philoctetes had been a close companion of Heracles.  Maybe the closest: when Heracles was dying in agony, he begged his friends to put him out of his misery; Philoctetes was the only one who had the guts to do it.  In gratitude, Heracles bequeathed Philoctetes his famous bow, with its arrows dipped in the poison blood of the hydra.

Bust of the playwright Sophocles

But that was just the beginning of Philoctetes’ story.  Years later, he joined the other heroes of Greece in pursuing Helen of Sparta’s hand in marriage.  By then he was renowned for his connection to Heracles, and also for his deadly archery.  And though usually in the ancient stories a bow and arrows are considered the weapons of a coward (as with Paris), you never hear a single word against Philoctetes.  Heracles’ bow would have been enormous, and only a true hero could have strung and drawn it.

As a suitor of Helen, Philoctetes must have seemed out of place among the other men.  He was a generation, or more, above them, and I imagine him as weathered, dignified, and still full of stoic grief for the loss of his famous friend.   It was unlikely that such a man would tempt Helen, and of course he did not.  But he did, along with all the other suitors, swear to uphold her marriage to Menelaus.

A powerful-looking Philoctetes, clutching his wounded foot.

Which is how, some years later, he found himself summoned to Troy to get her back.  Despite his age, Philoctetes upheld his oath and, paired with Odysseus as a sailing partner, the two men and their fleets began making their way to Troy.  Like all Homeric journeys, there were frequent stops on islands along the way, and on one such island, Lemnos, Philoctetes was bitten by a terrible viper.  He didn’t die, but the wound festered agonizingly, stinking and causing Philoctetes to fall into seizures.  Odysseus, practical as ever, didn’t want a smelly, hideous, screaming man on the ship, so he persuaded the other men to abandon Philoctetes while he slept.

When people ask me why I don’t see Odysseus as a straight-up hero, this myth is one of my answers.  Odysseus’ pragmatism here seems indistinguishable from ruthlessness: he abandons an aging hero, in excruciating pain, on a deserted island without any supplies of food or water.  When Philoctetes wakes, there is only empty beach and his bow.  Ten years of lonely, crushing pain follow.   In describing these years, Sophocles is at his most moving.  As in Oedipus at Colonus, and Ajax, Sophocles once again shows himself the champion of those who have been cast out from society, who feel themselves betrayed and abandoned.  Philoctetes’ bitter monologues are absolutely piercing in their indictment of a society that would throw away its elders because they have become inconvenient.  No matter how many times I read them, I always find myself caught up anew.

Philoctetes, with his wounded foot. Heracles' bow and arrows in the background. He has been hunting birds to feed himself.

Fast forward ten years, after Achilles has died but before Troy has fallen.  The Greeks learn from a prophecy that they will never take the city of Troy unless the bow of Heracles fights on their behalf.  In Sophocles’ play, the Greek leaders dispatch Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ young son, to go get Philoctetes (in other versions, Odysseus’ partner is the tricksy Diomedes).  Odysseus’ plan is to send Neoptolemus in as mediator because Philoctetes doesn’t know Neoptolemus, and is less likely to shoot him on sight.  Neoptolemus is supposed to engage the old man in conversation, wait for him to fall into a fit, then steal his bow and arrows. After all, reasons Odysseus, the prophecy never said that it needed the hero, only his weapons.

But Neoptolemus finds himself drawn to the old man’s dignity, and moved by his suffering.  When Philoctetes falls into a fit, he does not take the bow, only holds it until Philoctetes recovers, then returns it, chastising Odysseus: “It is far better to be just than wise.”   Still enraged by their betrayal, Philoctetes refuses to help the Greeks.   Just when all seems lost, the god Heracles appears, urging his old friend to relent, and promising Philoctetes that if he goes to Troy he’ll find a healer—Machaon, son of Asclepius—who can end his agony.  Philoctetes, obedient to his friend, agrees. Once at Troy, Philoctetes helps to take the city and, most importantly, kills the prince Paris—one archer slaying another.  He survives the war and returns safely home.

Vase Painting of Philoctetes, with his wound, bow and arrows. Fletcher Fund, 1956, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What makes this such an interesting tragedy is that, in the end, it isn’t one.  Thanks to Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is welcomed back into society.  The middle-aged Odysseus is inveterate, set in his ruthless ways, but there is still hope to be found in the innocent and clear-eyed gaze of youth.  It also offers hope in the form of forgiveness. Philoctetes could indeed make the Greeks suffer as he has suffered; but in the end, he does not.  I love his story so much that I found myself constantly having to battle the temptation to include it in my novel.  There are several Philoctetes scenes that got left on the cutting room floor simply because they didn’t fit, but one cameo remains.

I am not the only person who has been moved by Philoctetes’ story over the years.  He is the subject of a Wordsworth sonnet, and Sophocles’ play forms the core of  the amazing “Philoctetes Project,” which brings this play and others to army veterans.  At the other end of the spectrum is Disney’s “Hercules” which features–sort of–Philoctetes as a character.  The satyr voiced by Danny Devito was inspired, I can only guess, by some unholy combination of Philoctetes and Chiron, plus some goat thrown in.  He calls himself “Phil.”

The Myth of the Week is going to take a vacation next week, but will return in the New Year.  I wish you all very happy, myth-making holidays!

The Daily Mail recently chose The Song of Achilles for its Christmas Historical Fiction Pick.  Critic Kathy Stevenson calls it, “One of the most extraordinary books I’ve read this year” and “as great an epic retelling of Homer’s Iliad as you will find.”  She ends the review by saying:

“The tragedy of Achilles’s hubris and death in the battle for Troy is so poetically heartrending that I confess, dear reader, I wept.”

To see the entire article, click here (scroll down to Historical Fiction).

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Monday, December 12th, 2011

Recently, a friend and I were talking about how the homosexual undertones (or overtones) are often bowdlerized from retellings of Greek myths.  As children, we had both been puzzled by the story of Ganymede, the beautiful youth whom Zeus falls in love with and, in the form of an eagle, abducts to Mount Olympus to be his lover and cupbearer.  In the version I read, there was no mention of Zeus’ desire, and I remember feeling confused as to how Zeus knew he was such an excellent cupbearer just by looking at him, and why cupbearers were so hard to come by, and furthermore, why did it make Hera so mad?

All this is by way of leading up to today’s story about the youth Hyacinthus and the god Apollo, which was the first myth where I realized that the two men were definitely lovers, not just “close companions.”

Apollo and the dying Hyacinthus, with the fateful discus on the ground. Alexander Kiselev.

Hyacinthus was a beautiful Spartan youth, beloved by the god Apollo.  As the good Spartan he was, Hyacinthus loved athletics, and one day the two decided to practice throwing the discus.  Apollo went first, sending the disc flying up to “scatter the clouds” as Ovid says.  Hyacinthus ran laughing after it, thinking to catch the disc, but instead it hit him in the head, killing him.  Ovid has a beautiful passage about Apollo holding the dying youth, desperately trying to use his skill with medicine to keep him alive.  But even the mighty god of healing could not save the one he loved.

In honor of his lover, Apollo makes a flower spring up from Hyacinthus’ blood.  Confusingly, this flower isn’t actually what we today call a hyacinth.  Most sources agree that it was most likely an iris or a larkspur, since the myth tells us that Apollo writes on the flower the sound of his grief (Ai, Ai).  The iris, with its yellow markings on the purple leaf, seems the likeliest to me, though theoi.com disagrees, offering this helpful visual aid on behalf of the larkspur.  (On a side note, some say this flower, whichever it was, actually sprang from the dead Ajax’s blood, not Hyacinthus’. In that case, the markings spell out AI, in honor of Aias, Ajax’s Greek name.)

An iris. I know, I don't see the "AI" either. Photo taken by Danielle Langlois, July 2005, Forillon National Park of Canada, Quebec, Canada

In a second, quite popular variant of the myth, Hyacinthus’ death is actually a murderous crime of passion.  Turns out that not only was Apollo in love with Hyacinthus, but so was Zephyrus, the west wind.  Seeing how attached Apollo and Hyacinthus were, he grew jealous, and in an old-fashioned twist on “If I can’t have him no one can” he deliberately blows the discus into Hyacinthus’ path, killing him.  This version emphasizes the terrifying pettiness of the gods, and the dangers of mixing with them, even if–especially if–they love you.  Like nearly all ancient love affairs between mortals and divinities, it ends in tragedy for the mortal.

Apollo and a swooning, strategically modest Hyacinthus

Whenever I tell this story, I always wish that there were more of it.  Its final image of Apollo cradling Hyacinthus is beautiful and sad, but we don’t know anything about Hyacinthus and Apollo’s love beyond that moment, how they came to meet, or who Hyacinthus was.  It’s almost more of a triptych then a story, three moments caught in amber: the youth and Apollo happy together, the youth chasing the discus, the lover grieving over his dying beloved.  It’s enough to make me feel sympathy for Apollo, who has never been a particular favorite of mine.

Apollo catches the falling youth. Jean Broc

Aside from its tragedy, Hyacinthus’ story also has a historical significance.  The “-nth” suffix in Hyacinthus indicates that the name is actually quite old, a remnant of some sort of pre-Greek language, from before the development of ancient Greek culture as we know it.  Other examples include “Corinth” and the word “labyrinth” (see the Minotaur myth).

Some speculate (the Oxford Classical Dictionary included), that the story of Apollo tragically killing Hyacinthus is actually symbolic.  Given the antiquity of his name, it’s likely that Hyacinthus was some sort of older native nature deity, who was replaced by the Olympian Apollo. The myth preserves this cultural change in story form, having the new god “kill” the old one.

Classical statue of Apollo, known as "Apollo Belvedere"

Either way, Hyacinthus became an important religious figure, who was particularly worshipped in Sparta during a three-day festival, called Hyacinthia.  The festival included mourning rites for the youth’s death, then celebration of his rebirth as a flower. In this regard, Hyacinthus seems similar to the god Adonis, and the eastern Attis, all three of whom are youths who die in order to ensure the earth’s fertility—the male versions of Persephone. The festival was important enough to the Spartans that they were said to have broken off a military campaign in order to return home and celebrate it.

Vase painting of a discus-thrower, with other athletic gear.

A final story about Apollo and Hyacinthus.  Though the myth has had a long life in visual art, it hasn’t been nearly as popular in other types of media.  The only exception I could find was an opera composed by the eleven-year-old Mozart, entitled “Apollo et Hyacinthus.” The libretto for the piece was written by a priest, Rufinus Widl, who apparently found the story too scandalous because he invented a sister for Hyacinthus, Melia, to replace Hyacinthus as Apollo’s love interest.  In this version, the youth’s death is more tragic to the family than Apollo, affecting the god only because it is an impediment to wooing the sister.

The lovely thing about myths is how adaptable they are, how much they can be shaped and molded by each new teller.  But there is bending, and then there is breaking.  To remove Apollo and Hyacinthus’ love from this story is to take out the spine of the tale, rendering it unrecognizable.  There is certainly a beautiful story to be told about a lover who kills his beloved’s kinsmen (as Shakespeare knew when Romeo killed Tybalt), but that is another story, not this one.  Hyacinthus and Apollo (and Zephyrus), do well enough on their own.

Thanks to reader Sam for the suggestion!

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Happy December!  Here in Massachusetts, the weather has become decidedly wintry, and the grocery stores are full of the season’s fruits: clementines, grapefruits and, my favorite, pomegranates.  In honor of that luscious fruit, and the changing season, today’s myth is the story of Persephone.  The suggestion comes thanks to the fabulous Sarah Clayton (@Clayton_Sarah), a passionate reader and advocate for books.

Persephone (Proserpina in Latin) was the beautiful daughter of Zeus and the goddess of grain, Demeter. One day while she was picking flowers with her companions (Artemis and Athena, in one version of the story), Hades burst from the earth in a golden chariot, seized the girl, and carried her off to his palace in the Underworld.

Persephone being abducted by Hades. Note Athena, with the helmet, trying to rescue her. Rubens.

In modern retellings of Greek myths, it’s become common to portray Hades as evil, or demonic (see Disney’s Hercules).  This is absolutely not present in the ancient myths.  Though he was a gloomy and frightening god, the ancients never saw Hades as evil.  He wasn’t responsible for human death or suffering, merely charged with shepherding the souls once they had left their bodies—a necessary, if melancholy, job.  Out of respect and awe for his position, he was rarely depicted in ancient art.  (Post-Classical artists had no such restrictions, where his abduction of Persephone is a favorite subject.)

So, in snatching Persephone Hades was no more villainous than any of those other ancient abductors (Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, etc).  In fact, some might argue he was less so.  The god of the Underworld had gone first to his brother Zeus requesting a bride.  Zeus suggested Persephone and, knowing that her mother would never allow the girl to go, likewise suggested the abduction.  So it was with her father’s permission that Hades took the girl—as polite as it gets among divine unions.  Small consolation, of course, for Persephone.

When Demeter discovered what had happened to her daughter, her grief was so great it blighted the soil, causing the first winter.  In some versions of the story she even purposefully destroyed the earth, holding the world hostage until Zeus ordered her daughter returned.  I like this portrait of Demeter as vengeful mother (see Clytemnestra), and Demeter’s name is even etymologically related to the word for mother (meter), so fiercely canonical was this part of her identity.

Demeter (Ceres in Latin) is shown searching the world for her daughter, carrying a torch and a symbol of her power, a sheaf of wheat.

Hermes, guide of souls to the underworld, was sent to fetch the girl.  But before she could be set free, she ate the fateful pomegranate seeds—the food of the dead, and a bright-red stand-in for the blood that dead souls were said to crave.  The poet Louise Glück describes it like this:

“Persephone
returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne—”

She is allowed to leave, but the seeds condemn her to return and spend a season each year in the land of the dead.  Winter is born.

Hermes bringing Persephone back to her joyful mother. Frederic Leighton.

Sadly, Persephone isn’t given much personality in the myths, beyond that of passive victim.  More often the tale is focused on Demeter, or the dramatic moment of abduction. In some stories, Persephone is even stripped of her name, called simply “Kore” (maiden), as though the authors wanted us to see her symbolically, rather than personally.  It was in this role that she was worshipped alongside her mother in the Eleusinian mysteries, a cult of Demeter near Athens.  The rituals were famously secret, but centered around Demeter and Persephone as guardians of the earth’s cyclical fertility.

Persephone stands at right. On the left is Triptolemus, another agrarian deity. With Persephone and Demeter he makes up the Eleusinian trinity.

But where myth is silent, artists and poets have stepped in to fill in the gap.  I particularly love Louise Glück’s poetry collection Averno (which I quoted from above), a series of poems about death, centered on Persephone’s story.  Glück takes the bold and unusual step of making Hades a tempting and genuine lover.  In turn, Demeter becomes a more ambiguous figure, a mother who may be suffocating her daughter’s desire for independence.  Persephone is shuttled back and forth between these two figures, at home in neither place, something Glück expresses beautifully:

“The terrible reunions in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.”

There is a division at the heart of Persephone, who is at once the bringer of spring and the grim and terrifying Queen of the dead.   Her story is rich with symbolic and allegorical resonance about death and rebirth.  She is the incarnation of that ancient saying (supposed to make a sad man happy, and a happy man sad): This too shall pass.

Persephone with her pomegranate. Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Persephone also helped to give death a more merciful face.  Hades was known for being immovable, but Persephone assists a number of heroes and grieving lovers who stumble down into her world.  She is the one who grants Eurydice back to Orpheus, and she likewise aids Psyche in her quest to earn back Eros.

In honor of Persephone’s story, I will end with a great trick I recently learned for peeling pomegranates, without becoming your own red-splattered character from Hawthorne.

Fill a large bowl up with water, submerge the pomegranate, and cut and strip it underwater.  Not only will it contain the juice squirts, but the white pulp floats and the seeds sink.  Much easier!  Good thing I am not Persephone or it would never be spring again….

Novelist Donna Tartt recently picked The Song of Achilles for her Book of the Year in The Times!

“A captivating retelling of the Iliad and events leading up to it through the point of view of Patroclus: it’s a hard book to put down, and any classicist will be enthralled by her characterisation of the goddess Thetis, which carries the true savagery and chill of antiquity.”

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