Monday, January 30th, 2012
My students often tease me that every mythological character is “one of my favorites.” But, really, this week’s character is: Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons.
The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who lived somewhere in the region of the Black Sea (sources differ as to exactly where). There were a number of popular stories about them—that they were daughters of Ares, that no men were allowed in their camp. But the most famous of all is the one about their chest: that, in order to be able to wield a bow better, they would cut off one of one of their breasts. The story gained traction from some ancient etymologists, who claimed that the word Amazon derived from “a” (without) and “mazon” (breast, the same root as the “maste” in mastectomy).
As I child, I remember goggling at the breast story with horrified admiration. Those Amazons sure were committed to their archery! Now, of course, it seems absurd. As Olympic-level female archers the world over can testify, breasts do not interfere with shooting a bow. Surely the Greeks would have known that? But perhaps not—perhaps there simply weren’t enough female archers in the ancient world to disprove it. And part of me can’t help but wonder if the story wasn’t on some level meant to discourage women from taking it up—sorry, you’ll have to cut off your breast first.
The Amazons had a number of famous Queens, but Penthesilea is perhaps the most storied. She was a daughter of the war-god Ares, and Pliny credits her with the invention of the battle-ax. She was also sister to Hippolyta, who married the hero Theseus, after being defeated by him in battle. Penthesilea ruled the Amazons during the years of the Trojan war—and for most of that time stayed away from the conflict. However, after Achilles killed Hector, Penthesilea decided it was time for her Amazons to intervene, and the group rode to the rescue of the Trojans—who were, after all, fellow Anatolians. Fearless, she blazed through the Greek ranks, laying waste to their soldiers. I love Vergil’s glorious description of her in battle:
“The ferocious Penthesilea, gold belt fastened beneath her exposed breast, leads her battle-lines of Amazons with their crescent light-shields…a warrioress, a maiden who dares to fight with men.”
(By the way, the word that Vergil uses for warrioress is bellatrix, the inspiration for Bellatrix Lestrange’s name in Harry Potter.)
I can still remember the moment in my high school Latin class when I first translated those lines. I had heard of Penthesilea and the Amazons before, but this was the first time I really understand just how impressive and unusual it was in the ancient world to be a woman who “fights with men.” The heroines of Greek mythology tend towards thoughtfulness, fidelity and modesty (Andromache, Penelope), while the daring and headstrong personalities generally go to the antagonists–Medea, Clytemnestra, Hera. But Penthesilea is something else entirely: a woman who meets men on her own terms, as their equal. Perhaps in honor of this, Vergil doesn’t give her the standard heroine epithet of “beautiful.” For him, it is her majesty and obvious power that make her notable, not her looks.
Sadly, Penthesilea’s story ends in tragedy, at the hands of none other than Achilles himself. The most popular version of it is quite strange–that Achilles falls in love with her as he stabs her, catching her tenderly, even as she collapses to the ground. I have never been sure how to take this–is it a compliment to her spirit? Or is it an indignity–Achilles turning the warrior back into a woman? It all depends upon the telling, of course. But I like to think that maybe Achilles sees in her a sort of kindred spirit–another fierce and flashing youth, proud and driven towards honor. But he is so absorbed in his own drama that he realizes it, alas, a moment too late.
Contrary to popular belief, Penthesilea’s story isn’t actually told in the Iliad (which ends with Hector’s funeral, before the Amazons arrive), but in a lost ancient epic called Aethiopis. This poem continued the story of Achilles’ great deeds, which included the killing of several famous warriors—Memnon, King of Aethiopia, and Penthesilea most prominent among them.
It is unsurprising that such a vivid character had a long legacy in art and literature–first and foremost as the inspiration for Vergil’s great female warrior, Camilla, in the Aeneid. Penthesilea’s name became synonymous with female strength; when Eleanor of Aquitaine accompanied her husband on the second crusade, she is rumored to have attired herself as the famous Amazon. As far as I can find, there aren’t any novels focused on Penthesilea’s story, but she does appear in several poems (including one by Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius and Hercules My Shipmate). If any one knows a story centered on her, drop me a line!
A final story about Amazons. When I was in college, I volunteered to teach mythology to fifth graders. One day, I told the students a number of myths, the Amazons included, and then had them pick one story and draw a picture of it. Going around the room, I saw lots of Pegasuses, Heracleses, and Minotaurs. So I was excited when I noticed that one boy had drawn a very buff looking Amazon, wielding a bow. At her feet was a round object.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s the breast she just cut off,” he answered.
“Oh!” I think I said. “Very vivid!”
On that note, have a wonderful, and mythological, week!
Monday, January 22nd, 2012
Last week I talked about Medusa, from whose neck the winged horse Pegasus was born. This week, I thought it would be only fitting to return to Pegasus’ story, along with his most famous rider, Bellerophon. As I sat down to write, my significant other Nathaniel (a fellow myth-lover) told me that Pegasus and Bellerophon was one of his favorite myths, and offered to do a guest post for the week. I happily accepted–though you see I couldn’t resist adding a few of my own thoughts at the end. Take it away, Nathaniel!
“As a child, there was no one in Greek myth I envied more than Bellerophon. You may not have heard of him—he doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heracles or a Theseus. But you’ve heard of the reason I envied him: Pegasus.
To befriend a horse, to tame him, and to ride: this is the fantasy that countless novels and movies are made of. So what could be more thrilling than a horse that could go even further, bear you beyond the bounds of gravity itself? Perseus may have had winged sandals, but they were nothing compared to the visceral pleasure of a living, breathing companion that could lift you into the sky.
Bellerophon came to Pegasus from a typically nasty Greek myth situation. Born in Corinth to King Glaucus (or sometimes the god Poseidon), Bellerophon accidentally killed a man, and found himself exiled to the court of King Proitos—where he was then falsely accused of rape by the Queen. Proitos packed him off to his father-in-law, King Iobates in Lycia, bearing a sealed message with instructions that he should murder Bellerophon immediately upon arrival. But Iobates was reluctant to do the deed himself, fearing the wrath of Zeus, and so sent Bellerophon off to fight, and be killed by, the local rampaging monster: the Chimera.
One of the wonderful things about Greek myth is that the monsters tend to combine primal terror with a touch of total absurdity. Take Medusa: a woman whose gaze turns you to stone. In this we can see ancient fears about female power and sexuality—the ability of a woman to rob a man of his will with a glance. Snakes too, are primal horrors. But snakes for hair? This seems to invite all sorts of overly literal question like: Does she have to give them haircuts? Do they bite her? Does she have to feed them separately?
Similarly, the Chimera: a fearsome lion-headed creature that breathes fire, with a snake for a tail. If the ancients had stopped there it would have been all right. But they didn’t. For along with its lion-head and snake-tail, the Chimera has a goat head sprouting from its middle (see above). Yes, a goat, that fearful predator that haunted the sleep of dawn age humanity. The Oxford Classical Dictionary notes that the goat “may be made less risible by allowing it to perform the fire-breathing.” Fear the now less-risible goat! But I suppose the very improbability of this combination is part of what makes the Chimera frightening: it’s a loathsome hybrid, a perversion of all logic and natural order.
In despair at ever defeating such a thing, Bellerophon went to sleep in Athena’s temple, hoping for the goddess’ advice and aid. She appeared to him in a dream, and told him where he might find the horse Pegasus. When he woke, there was a golden bridle waiting at his side.
If ever a horse deserved gilded tack, it’s Pegasus. With it, Bellerophon was able to successfully tame him, and the two flew off to do battle with the Chimera. But because of the fire-breathing, Bellerophon and Pegasus couldn’t get close enough to the monster to stab it. So Bellerophon attached a piece of lead to his spear, then rammed it into the Chimera’s mouth on his next fly-by.
The lead melted and filled the beast’s throat, suffocating it. I’m not sure why it suffocated, with two other apparent windpipes to draw on, but let’s not look too closely. The lesson is clear: clever thinking and a flying horse are tough to beat.
This is Greek myth, and there are no happy endings. Not content with his status as a great hero and rider of the most wondrous horse ever to live, Bellerophon yearned for more: to see Olympus itself, the home of the gods. So Bellerophon urged Pegasus to fly higher and higher still, all the way up to Olympus’ gleaming gates. Just as he was about to reach them, Pegasus bucked, and Bellerophon fell back to earth. His death, at this point, would have been merely tragic. But the gods, in punishment for his hubris, devised something far worse. Bellerophon lived, but crippled and blinded, stumbling over the earth for the rest of his days in search of his beloved Pegasus–who never appeared to him again. It always seemed far worse to me than Heracles’ fate, or Achilles’ or Icarus’. The once-great hero forced to live the rest of his life with his regrets, “devouring his own soul,” as Homer puts it. And Pegasus? He goes to live in Olympus with the gods.
Hi, Madeline again. I agree, I’ve always found the story so sad. And Bellerophon’s love for Pegasus reminds me of the ancient appreciation of horses in general, even ones that couldn’t fly: Alexander the Great named cities after his steed Bucephalus, while Caligula made his horse a senator. In the Iliad, Achilles’ immortal horses weep for the death of Patroclus, and later try, in vain, to warn Achilles about his fate. Flying or not, horses were magic in the ancient world.
Bellerophon’s story also plays an important role in the history of literacy. In the Iliad, Glaucus of Lycia tells us that his grandfather Bellerophon was sent to King Iobates from King Proitus with a message scratched on a tablet.
As scholars have long noted, this is Homer’s only mention of writing, and the first reference to it in the history of Greece letters. It’s also tantalizingly vague: Homer doesn’t say that the tablet has words on it—rather, he says that it contains semata lugra “sad signs.” The sad part refers to the note’s murderous content, but the semata is fascinating. Does it imply some earlier, more rudimentary form of writing, like pictographs? Or is it merely that written messages were so new in Homer’s age that there wasn’t a more elegant way to describe them? It’s unclear. Scripts did exist in the Greek world before Homer’s time (like Linear B), but they were used largely for clerical things–keeping track of sacrificial offerings, for instance, not messages.
By the way, Glaucus isn’t the only grandson of Bellerophon who makes a notable appearance in the Iliad. There’s also Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, who helps Hector lead the charge against the Greek camp, and tears down its protective palisade with his bare hands. He was one of my favorite cameo parts to write in The Song of Achilles—he’s the only son of Zeus who fights in the war, and he’s from the exotic (to the Greek eye) Lycia. He’s killed by none other than Patroclus himself.
Have a favorite myth? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a line either on my contact page or twitter (@MillerMadeline).
Monday, January 16th, 2012
I hate snakes. So the worst part, by far, of writing The Song of Achilles was having to research them. Those of you who have read it know that a single snake appears, very briefly. But, just like all the rehearsal that goes into a single scene onstage, getting that serpent right involved major rolling-up of herpetological sleeves. For one thing, I needed to find out which snakes existed in that particular part of Greece (the island of Lemnos) during Homeric times. Of those varieties, I then had to choose the snake that I wanted, and observe how it looked and moved.
The upshot was that I spent two days looking at pictures and videos of snakes. Though, if I’m honest, part of the reason that it took so long wasn’t diligence but the fact that if I studied the images for more than about ten seconds, I would get the creeping snake-horrors. So I had to take a lot of breaks. All this is by way of introducing the new Myth of the Week, those slithery, shudder-inducing ladies themselves, the Gorgons. Thanks to Chris for the great suggestion!
Like other love-to-hate-them monsters in Greek mythology, the Gorgons attracted a lot of story-tellers, and therefore a lot of contradictory stories. For instance, in Homer, there was only a single Gorgon, simply called “Gorgo” whose fearsome, snaky head adorned Athena’s shield. In later myths, however, there were three of them: Euryale, Sthenno and, of course, Medusa. They were described as having snake hair, and were often also depicted with boar tusks, wide, grinning faces and wings (see above, and below).
One of the strangest things about the Gorgons is that though they were supposedly sisters, two of them were goddesses, and the third, Medusa, was mortal. The comedian Eddie Izzard has a funny piece about Medusa’s outrage when she discovers this. (It’s followed by a hilarious bit about Medusa putting on a mouse video to try to keep her snakes calm. It’s on youtube, if you’re interested.)
From a narrative perspective, one of the Gorgons needs to be mortal so that Perseus can slay it. But other myths sprang up to explain why it was Medusa in particular. In the most popular of these, Medusa had been born a beautiful mortal woman, with particularly gorgeous hair. As she was praying to Athena in her temple, the god Poseidon appeared and raped her. Athena was so deeply offended by this that she—
Blasted the sea-god with her father’s thunderbolt? Stabbed him through his fishy chest with her awesome goddess-of-war spear?
No. Rather than being concerned about the girl, she was concerned about the pollution of her temple. She averted her eyes in disgust during the act, and afterwards, when Poseidon was gone, blamed Medusa for flaunting her too-seductive beauty. Then, to punish her, she cursed the girl’s appearance, changing her into a hideous monster who turned all she looked on to stone.
What’s most disturbing about this story, I think, is how casually and matter-of-factly Ovid tells it. It isn’t meant to be a tragedy; it isn’t meant to highlight Athena’s gross unfairness. If anything, it seems to find her choice of punishment fitting. It makes for some deeply unpleasant commentary on Roman culture, and a particularly brutal portrait of the cruelty of the gods.
Afterwards, the newly transformed Medusa goes to live with her “sisters,” and this is where the well-known story picks up. Perseus is given the task of slaying her and bringing back her head as proof. With Athena’s help he arrives at her lair, and using his reflective shield is able to avoid her deadly gaze. With his sword, he strikes off her head. Medusa falls to the ground, dead.
Next comes one of my favorite parts of the story. From the stump of Medusa’s severed neck is born the beautiful, winged horse, Pegasus. I have always found this fascinating: that one of the most beloved, and lovely creatures from Greek myth derives from the ugliest. This is all the more interesting because in the ancient mythological worldview, external beauty was a sign of similarly beautiful inner character–there was no Greek adage against judging a book by its cover. Thus, the scurrilous soldier Thersites, with his virulent attacks on the aristocracy, is depicted as hideous, while the noble Achilles is the most beautiful of the Greeks. But Pegasus and Medusa seem to break the pattern. If we take Ovid’s story as true, that Medusa was once a normal young woman, I like to think that Pegasus is some final remnant of that former, truer self. Through Pegasus, maybe she is able, at last, to escape Athena’s curse.
Medusa’s petrifying power was so strong that it lived on, even after her death. Perseus is able to use the gruesome head against his enemies, including the sea-serpent from whom he rescues the princess Andromeda. Eventually, judging such a thing too dangerous for a mortal to keep, Athena takes custody of the head and fixes it on her shield. We never hear what happens to the other two gorgons, whether they mourned for their sister or how they lived out their eternal lives. It’s too bad; it might make a good story.
The myth of Medusa is filled with transformations—from beautiful girl to monster, from living flesh to stone, from corpse to winged horse. But there is one more strange and minor transformation associated with her that I’ve always enjoyed. After Perseus has slain the sea-monster, but before Athena has relieved him of the head, Perseus wants to put the head down for a moment. But he frets that it will get damaged on the hard earth. So, with a solicitousness that no one showed poor Medusa in real life, he pulls seaweed and greens from the sea, and makes a pallet for the head. As soon as Medusa’s skin touches the sea-greens, they begin to stiffen. And this, says Ovid, was the beginning of the first reef.
Unsurprisingly, Medusa’s story was a popular one in visual arts, and painters seem to have been particularly taken with the image of the severed head. I included Caravaggio’s version above, but the absolutely grossest one I refuse to post, since it gives me snake-shivers. But if you really want to see it, click here.
I warned you.
Next Week: The winged horse Pegasus himself.
Tuesday, January 10th
I am thrilled to announce that the independent bookseller collective IndieBound has chosen The Song of Achilles for one of its March Indie Next picks! This is a huge honor for me, as I have been spent many, many happy hours in independent bookstores in my life, and found several of my favorite books through bookseller recommendations. I feel humbled and gratified knowing that these passionate book-lovers enjoyed my novel, and I am very much looking forward to visiting some of their stores in March and April.
Click here to get The Song of Achilles from IndieBound!
I had the amazing fortune to be interviewed recently by the hilarious and lovely Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, Confesssions of an Ugly Step-Sister, and many other best-selling novels. Not only is he a fellow Bostonian, but I am pretty sure that this is the most fun I will ever have answering questions. Click here to read our conversation!
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto