Monday, March 12th, 2012
Today’s Myth of the Week is in honor of Latin teacher extraordinaire Walter, and his delightful students. Good luck on the upcoming National Latin exam!
Galileo knew his mythology. After discovering the four largest moons of Jupiter, he decided to name them, fittingly, after four famous loves of Zeus (Jupiter, to Romans): Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Of these four, Callisto’s story is the least well known, but maybe the most fascinating. Callisto (Kallisto in the Greek) was an Arcadian nymph, whose name literally means “most beautiful.” Her father was the infamous and cruel Lycaon, whom Jupiter changed into a wolf as punishment for his savage and “wolfish” behavior. He is often cited as a mythological precursor of the werewolf.
Callisto preferred the woods to her father’s house. She loved to hunt and became a favorite of the goddess Artemis, joining her band of nymphs and swearing to remain a virgin eternally. Although today we might regard this as overly stringent, in the world of ancient mythology virginity meant freedom. As one of Artemis’ virgins, she would never have to marry a man of her father’s choosing, and could remain without domestic responsibilities in the woods her entire life.
Unfortunately, like many beautiful nymphs, she caught the eye of Zeus. By this point in myth history Zeus was getting cannier in his disguises. Rather than transforming into a bull, or swan, Zeus decided to appear to the girl as Artemis herself. Ovid describes the two women talking intimately, then “Artemis” begins kissing Callisto.
It’s an electrifying moment, and an unusual one; there are very few surviving mentions of women loving women from the ancient world, simply because nearly all of the ancient writers were men. The references that do survive are generally dismissive or disgusted. But that is not that case here: Callisto welcomes her mistress’ passionate embrace. For a moment it almost seems like we have stumbled upon a wonderful secret history.
But the audience knows better, because it isn’t Artemis at all–it’s Zeus. The story gave its ancient readers just enough time to be intrigued, or titillated, or shocked before setting the world “right” again. Callisto’s error is played for laughs: she thinks it’s Artemis who she likes, but fake out! It’s really Zeus, who she doesn’t!
Call me humorless, but I’m not laughing. Zeus reveals himself, rapes Callisto, then vanishes. The girl is doubly distraught—not only about the assault, but about the breaking of her oath of virginity to Artemis. (This being the ancient world, it doesn’t matter that it was unwilling—the oath is broken all the same). She is all the more distressed when she learns that she is pregnant, and must hide the pregnancy from her sharp-eyed mistress as long as possible.
We can see where this is going. Artemis is notoriously unsympathetic and uncompromising about transgressions—witness her punishment of poor Actaeon for accidentally glimpsing her in the bath: he’s torn apart by his own dogs. When Callisto takes off her dress to bathe, Artemis notices her belly. She flies into a rage, and is joined by Hera, who is herself angry at Callisto for having slept with her husband. As usual, Hera doesn’t care whether it was consensual. She turns the girl into a bear and Artemis kills her. Zeus (where were you five minutes ago?) swoops down to rescue Callisto’s unborn child, a boy named Arcas. And, in homage to the boy’s mother takes Callisto’s body and sets it in the sky as the “Great Bear”—Ursa Major. Her son, when he dies, joins her, becoming Ursa Minor.
That’s one version of the story—in another, Callisto flees into the woods in her new ursine form, living out her days as an animal. Fast forward fifteen years or so. Callisto’s son, Arcas, has grown up a gifted hunter, just like his mother. He is wandering in the woods one day, and spots a bear. Hoisting his javelin, he prepares to kill it with a single blow. But as he is about to hurl the spear, Zeus stops him, not wanting him to be guilty of the sin of killing his own mother. He whisks the two of them up to the heavens, transforming them into constellations.
In later generations, Zeus’ embrace of Callisto while disguised as Artemis was the part of the story that really seemed to grab people’s imaginations. Partially that’s because it was Ovid’s version, but surely also because of its frisson of transgression. But for me the most moving and tragic part of the story is the moment after, when Callisto realizes what is really happening. That she’s been tricked by Zeus, and is about to lose everything she holds dear—Artemis’ favor, her fidelity to her oath, her place in the world, even her humanity. Becoming a constellation just doesn’t seem like recompense enough.
A final, completely different, thought. Artemis seems to have been particularly associated with bears, and at her sanctuary at Brauron young girls would serve as “little bears” in a ritual to honor the goddess. It’s a much nicer face of the goddess than Callisto sees.
I’m excited to announce that tomorrow (March 13th) is the kick-off of my US book tour. If you’re in the area and interested, please join me!
Monday, February 13th, 2012
In honor of Valentine’s, a love story.
There are two problems with looking for romance in Greek mythology. The first is that many of the so-called “love” myths are anything but. For instance, I’ve often seen Daphne and Apollo classed as a love story. But, of course, Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, and only narrowly escapes being raped by him. So, there’s that.
The second problem is that the stories which are about genuine love are almost uniformly tragic. The list of these is quite long: Hector and his beloved Andromache, Achilles and Patroclus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hero and Leander, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Atalanta and Meleager, and on, and on.
But there are a few—a very few—stories that are both romantic and happy. The best known ones are Psyche and Eros (more on that soon), and my favorite: the story of Baucis and Philemon.
At first glance, Baucis and Philemon make non-traditional romantic leads. For one thing, when the story begins they are bent over with age. For another, they are poor commoners, while the lovers in Greek myths tend towards aristocrats or divinities. Thirdly, there is no question of “will they or won’t they?” Baucis and Philemon have been married for years, living happily together in the same humble, straw-roofed dwelling.
Their rustic routine is interrupted by two weary strangers, knocking at the door looking for food and shelter—they have been turned away, they say, by all the finer houses in the neighborhood. Baucis, the wife, and Philemon, the husband, welcome the two men warmly. Even though their resources are scant, they set about cheerfully making the best of what they have. One of my favorite parts of this story is the elaborate preparations: Baucis scrubbing the dinner table with mint to make it smell fresh (good idea!), and Philemon carving the meat.
We also get a lovely description of their rustic dinner, which sounds much more appetizing than many of the absurd Greco-Roman dishes that have come down to us (larks’ tongues, eel pastries, jellyfish). Instead there are:
“olives, and cherries preserved in wine…, endive and radish, cheese, eggs roasted in the hearth-embers… nuts, and figs scattered among wrinkly dates, plums and apples fragrant in their broad baskets, grapes collected from their purple vines, and a gleaming honeycomb.”
YUM. But even more important than the food is the care that the old couple uses in preparing it, the generous goodwill they show in laying out the best they have. Hospitality was a virtue in the ancient Greek world—guests were sacred to Zeus himself. Myth texts often note that this is because you never knew when a stranger might prove to be a god. But Baucis and Philemon aren’t so calculating. They are reflexively kind, not fearfully so. There are also some lovely descriptions of the couple working together in practiced synchronicity—carrying the wood, putting a wedge under the wobbly leg of the table, setting out the earthenware plates. Ovid beautifully captures the house’s domestic harmony and contentment—these are people at peace with themselves.
The four sit down to the meal. But as they eat and drink, they notice that the wine bowl, filled with the best humble vintage the couple has, never seems to empty. No matter how often Baucis and Philemon pour for their guests, the bowl is always brimming. Beginning to suspect that their guests may be gods, they are fearful that they haven’t done enough to please them, and decide to kill their beloved pet goose to add to the dinner spread. However, slow with age as they are, they cannot catch him, and end up pursuing him around and around the house.
Many people have seen a sort of humor in this moment—the old couple stumbling after their nimble goose. But to be honest, I have always found it sad. This good old couple is afraid for their lives, and are desperately trying to offer the only thing they have left to appease the gods.
Luckily, all ends well. The goose runs to the two travelers for sanctuary, and they stand to reveal themselves as, yes, gods: Zeus and Hermes himself. They tell the old couple to forget about the goose, and to come with them up the mountain to its top. The couple obeys (Ovid offers a nice detail about them leaning on their walking sticks), and when they reach the top and turn around they see that their old neighborhood, with all its houses and people, has been swept away. Only Baucis and Philemon’s house remains, which—even as they look—is transformed into a beautiful, marble-and-gold temple.
It is a miraculous and upsetting moment. Yes, Baucis and Philemon have been saved but all their neighbors are dead. For the sake of the happy ending, Ovid does not dwell on this, beyond mentioning that the couple grieves for those who have been lost. But it is hard to forget the swift and unforgiving punishment—there is no second chance, if you displease the gods.
Fortunately, the gods are pleased with Baucis and Philemon. Zeus offers to grant the pious, good-hearted pair whatever they wish. The two whisper together for a moment, and then Philemon announces that they would like to live out their lives as servants of the gods in the new temple. Further, because of their great love for each other, they do not wish to have to live alone, without the other. They ask the gods to let them die at the same moment:
“Let the same hour bear us both off; let me never see the tomb of my wife, nor be buried by her.”
Zeus agrees, and the couple spend many joyful years together in their new home. Then, one day, as they stand outside their temple talking of their lives, they notice something strange—branches are beginning to grow from their heads, their hair is transforming into leaves. With their last breaths, they call out their farewells to each other. A moment later, two trees, an oak and a linden tree, stand where the old couple was. And, just as in life, the two are bound together, sprung from the same trunk, their branches entwining into eternity.
A sweet story. May we all be as lucky in love as Baucis and Philemon.
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
- Exciting shortlist news! Mass Book and UK Independent Bookseller Awards
- Update: India
- Signed copies of The Song of Achilles–Year Round!
- Reflections on 2012, traveling and the Orange Prize
- In Praise of Literary Adaptations
- My Year in Reading
- Reflections on 2012, Book Recommendations and New Essays
- Signed Copies of The Song of Achilles
- General news
- Shortlisted for Stonewall