Saturday, April 23, 2016

If you like the posts I write about mythology here, then you may also like this piece I wrote for the journal Eidolon about teaching Ovid's rape stories (particularly as compared to rape narratives in popular movies).

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Goddess of Wisdom, Warfare, and Woman-hating

      Based on my obvious feminist leanings, you might jump to the conclusion that I am a huge fan of Athena. And I have to admit, she’s an attractive figure: a warrior goddess, imbued with a great deal of force and obviously feared by weak mortal men. Charging across the battlefield carrying a shield decorated with Medusa’s severed head, she makes a nice power fantasy. I think the first time I heard of her was in sixth grade world history, when we covered ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Of course, sixth grade classes tend to cover Greek gods and goddesses in a safe and sanitized way, when all the gods’ qualities are phrased as innocuously as possible and the gods are freed from all their problematic baggage. Aphrodite is the goddess of “love and beauty” (rather than the goddess of sex and reproduction), and Hera is the “goddess of marriage and motherhood” (rather than the goddess of atrocious punishments for her perceived enemies). When I got to high school and started delving into mythology seriously by reading genuine classical literature, I got to see all that problematic baggage that had been omitted or cleaned up before. (“So when they said that Jupiter fell in love with Callisto, they meant--oh, no…”)
      Athena has her own problematic baggage, which is why I’m not so crazy about her. Unlike her father, she doesn’t go around raping everyone in sight, but she does have an extremely vindictive side. One of the stories about how the famous seer Tiresias came to be blind claims that Athena blinded Tiresias as punishment for seeing her naked. You may have heard the story of how Athena came to be patroness of Athens: she was competing against Poseidon for the honor, and she created the olive tree while Poseidon created the horse. The horse, conventional wisdom says, should have been the obvious winner, except that the women of Athens all voted in Athena’s favor out of pure gender favoritism, whereby Athena won the contest. (In historical Athenian elections, this was given as the reason why women were not allowed to vote.) Unfortunately, Athena was not so loyal to her gender compatriots as they were to her; in fact, she had a policy--as she expressly reports, serving as the incarnation of divine justice in Aeschylus’ Eumenides--that in any judgment she sides with a male over a female by default. This policy of favoring males and attacking females is most egregiously demonstrated when Medusa (at this time a beautiful woman, not the more famous snaky-haired monster) is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena is offended in principle (she’s a virgin goddess! An aggressively virginal goddess! No one should be having sex in her temple, under any circumstances) but is unable to gain satisfaction from Poseidon, who outranks her in the divine hierarchy. In frustration, she takes out her anger on Medusa, who didn’t really have control over the situation. (A similar rape occurs in Athena’s temple after the sack of Troy, when Ajax the Lesser rapes Cassandra in Athena’s temple. Here Athena is likewise offended, and since Ajax is a puny mortal, Athena is free to kill him with impunity. Cassandra is not subject to violent retribution from Athena, mercifully. Still, at this point Cassandra was already under her famous curse, plus she was sold into slavery and presumably raped again before she was murdered by her master’s wife. It’s not like being spared Athena’s wrath meant that Cassandra lived happily ever after.) This is what I mean: Athena is vindictive, but in particular she’s vindictive toward women in their sexual roles, while overlooking the fact that women in ancient Greece have very little control over their sexual lives. Most Greek women did not have the social authority, much less the combat expertise, to choose like Athena whether or in what circumstances they would have sex.
      Maybe you would call attention to some of the problematic women I have supported in the past: Medea, Hypsipyle, Procris, Camilla. If I can cheer on Medea as she kills all the men who want to control her life, why can’t I cheer on Athena as she aggressively enforces her own sexual standards? I’d say mostly because Athena is unquestionably powerful, and recognized as such. She’s an Olympian goddess, after all. Medea may have enough magic powers to make a deadly burning robe and summon a dragon chariot, but she is fighting without allies against the men who rule the state and control its armed forces. They could certainly round up a mob to kill Medea, or at least throw her out of town. Athena attacks weak humans who have no defense against her, and certainly aren’t able to kill her. When a person has such a great degree of power, I hold them to a higher standard of behavior. Even though Greek gods are no moral paragons, and in ancient times were never conceived of as being objectively good or moral in their behavior (at least not as mythological characters--we can get into a long argument with Socrates over whether his god is good or not), I evaluate these Greek gods through my own cultural lens--and at the end of the day, I expect better from them.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Memorial Days

      Remember Hypsipyle? I’ve written about her in the past; she’s a favorite character of mine. There are plenty of reasons to like her story: for one thing, Aphrodite’s decision to repay her neglect from the women of Lemnos with a foul odor seems much more humane than the gods’ usual responses to neglect, such as demanding human sacrifice or cursing someone with a hunger so insatiable he is eventually driven to eat himself. After suffering from incurable body odor, the decision of the Lemnian women to repay their neglect from the Lemnian men with mass murder seems hilariously overblown, in a dark comedy way, the sort of thing that would only happen to create a backstory for an all-female Greek city-state that wouldn’t exist for any other reason. Despite her dubious means to power, Hypsipyle seems to exercise the sort of prudence and gravitas expected of a ruler (although she does take on Jason as a romantic interest, which shows some questionable judgment). In Statius’ Thebaid, she stands as a rather improbably innocent study of morality in the midst of evil, observing the slaughter but refusing to participate--and at the same time refusing to bring to justice any of the murderers she ostensibly rules over. Later in life, for reasons that vary from version to version, Hypsipyle was sent into exile, or possibly kidnapped by pirates.
      But where did she go? It’s a long fall for the former queen of Lemnos. She ends up enslaved in Nemea (famous as the home of the Nemean Lion that Herakles fought) working as a babysitter, and not doing a very good job of it. In fact, she’s such a poor babysitter that the child she’s watching dies. This is how it happens: a sudden drought occurs, just as an aggressive army comes marching through Nemea. Meeting Hypsipyle (alone with the baby she’s watching) on the road, the army demands to be led to a water source; in her haste to comply, she sets down the baby. The baby, named Opheltes, isn’t in danger of wandering off; he’s swaddled up tightly and too small to crawl anyway. But the moment Hypsipyle walks away, a snake lunges out of the grass and kills the baby--but this is no ordinary snake. It’s the most fearsome snake in the world, apparently, with three rows of teeth and flaming eyes, a snake powerful enough to tear down oak trees and venomous enough to wither grass just by breathing on it. And this baby isn’t Herakles, ready to strangle divine snakes even before he leaves the cradle; this is an ordinary baby, who never stood a chance against the world’s most dangerous snake. It’s complete overkill. While the army is milling around and refilling their canteens, Hypsipyle is agonizing over the question of how to tell her masters that their son is dead.
      The parents are so upset to hear about their son’s death that they decide to institute a recurring athletic competition (similar to the Olympics) in his honor. These were called the Nemean Games and they’re the other thing (besides the Lion) that Nemea is famous for--if you go there today, you can still visit the ancient racetrack, and find ancient Greek graffiti carved into the walls. For context, you should know that ancient Greece was home to many recurring athletic competitions, most of which commemorated some extraordinary triumph. The Panathenaic Games, for example, were held in honor of Athena’s mythic defeat of Poseidon in the contest for patronage of Athens, in which Athena created the olive tree and Poseidon made a horse spring out of the ground. The Pythian Games at Delphi commemorated Apollo’s defeat of the Python, a giant dragon (hard to imagine it was more fearsome than the one that killed Opheltes) that was terrorizing Delphi. Compared to these heroic stories, the origins of the Nemean Games seem unbelievably banal: a baby was left unattended and died by accident. Even so, Opheltes is revered as a hero, no doubt the most heroic infant that ever lay immobile on the ground. It’s a commonplace statement that the heroes of Greek myth are often not as heroic as one might wish--Herakles, Theseus, Orpheus, and all the other heroes generally have some unsavory exploits lurking in their pasts that are hard to condone under modern mores--but Opheltes is probably the least heroic Greek hero I’ve ever heard of. I’d say that, in the spirit of the Nemean Games, we should all endeavor to be more like him, but I’m afraid he left us very few accomplishments to emulate.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Dear readers: Thank you so much for sticking with me through my sporadic posting. I haven't been updating much lately because I've been working on a book, and hope to have it published within the next few months.

I don't think I've mentioned it here before, but I'm an active member of the spoken Latin movement. There are Latin conversation groups, Latin speaking conventions, and spoken Latin classes all across the country and around the world (enabled by the internet, an excellent means for connecting with people who have esoteric interests). As part of this movement, you can find various books--usually children's books--translated into Latin. The Harry Potter translations are fairly famous, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid came out quite recently, but a lot of classic children's stories have been translated too, like Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince, to say nothing of Terry Tunberg's exceptional translations of Dr. Seuss stories.

To this I intend to add a Latin translation of Oscar Wilde's children's stories: “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” and “The Devoted Friend.” If you're unfamiliar with the stories, you can find them here. The stories are lively with Wilde’s signature wit; they feature biting irony, poignant lessons, and engaging drama for all the characters. As a further advantage regarding Latin translation, they for the most part dodge non-classical technical vocabulary, minimizing the need for neologisms and relying on vocabulary that Latin speakers might naturally encounter in the course of reading traditional texts.

I'm very excited about all of this. Watch this space for more details; I’ll certainly be posting a sample when the editing process is done. I’ve already started a second collection of Wilde stories, so we’ll see how fast I can get that off the ground. And I’ll write up some more mythology when I can. Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Nameless Horror

      One striking feature of classical myth that just about every character, no matter how insignificant, is assigned a name by some author or other. Achilles’ horse has a name. Actaeon’s hunting dogs all have names. The Minotaur, that abomination of a child nobody wanted, was given a proper Greek name before his parents threw him into an inescapable prison. When the hero Bellerophon decided to transgress the limits of humanity and offend the gods by attempting to climb Mount Olympus, not only did the horse he was riding have a name, but even the fly that the gods sent to bite the horse and knock Bellerophon off the mountain had a name. So it is a shocking rarity to report that the character I want to describe here doesn’t have a name. (I’m reminded of the Lord of the Rings, in which every character imaginable is equipped with a name--sometimes several names--as well as a lineage running back to the arrival of the Maiar…but there’s one character, ‘the Mouth of Sauron,’ who is singled out for not having a name, and it’s all part of his lengthy and intensely evil backstory. This is something similar.)
      This story is related in Statius’ Thebaid, when some strangers have wandered into a new town, and the inhabitants of the town are explaining why they make extra offerings to Apollo. It starts out like a typical hero-origin story, in which a god sleeps with a mortal woman and they have a child. The bastard is not accepted into his mother’s royal home and is secretly given to a shepherd to raise, the same sort of thing that happens to heroes like Perseus, Romulus and Remus, Aesculapius, Ion, plenty of people. But then this typical Raglan hero story takes an abrupt left turn when the infant is inexplicably mauled to death by dogs. The baby’s mother finds out and gives her secret away by going into a (quite justified) screaming fit. As punishment for having a bastard child, her father condemns her to death. The only one left to handle the aftermath of this episode is Apollo, who is incensed that his child has been killed and decides to wreak revenge upon the offending mortal. Apollo dredges up from the underworld a demon: a savage, grotesque-looking woman with iron claws and a snake growing out of her forehead, someone who devours the children of others to avenge Apollo’s dead child. Eventually a hero steps forward to banish the demon and offer himself as a sacrifice. Apollo responds with mercy uncharacteristic of the typically petty and implacable gods: he lets the hero go unharmed. But until that hero steps forward, the demon terrorizes the city by feeding on children. She has no name.
      Or perhaps she has many names. There is a well established tradition in Greek folklore of a child-killing demon who goes by various names: Lamia, Mormo, Strix, and others. Typically her backstory describes her as a woman who lost a young child, or possibly killed her own children in a moment of temporary insanity, and who now, as a supernatural being, jealously deprives other parents of their children. She embodies anxieties--very common in societies with high infant mortality rates--that parents won’t get to see their children grow up, possibly due to some cause that is poorly understood. But generally references to this demon are confined to folklore and don’t bleed over into highbrow literature, which is why it’s odd to see Statius describe her, and possibly why she isn’t given a name.
      Incidentally, the hero who defeats the demon does have a name: Coroebus. He’s not the most famous hero in the world, but he does have a role in that masterpiece of Latin literature, the Aeneid: he’s come to Troy as a suitor for Cassandra, and is devotedly in love with his prospective bride (fairly common in ancient literature, but probably pretty unusual in the real-life Greek world of arranged marriages). Cassandra, you may know, had her own run-in with Apollo: in one of the extremely rare instances when Apollo attempted to persuade a woman to have sex with him rather than directly raping her, he offered Cassandra the ability to see the future in exchange for sleeping with him. They shook on it, he gave her the gift of prophecy, she refused to sleep with him after all, and he cursed her to always be disbelieved. (You’d think she might have foreseen that problem before she backed out of the deal--unless sleeping with Apollo is so unpleasant that the alternative string of catastrophes looked more appealing.) So she went through life suffering terrible catastrophes but being unable to avert them (because she’s a princess, her identity has political capital used by powerful people who control her life and she doesn’t make any meaningful decisions about what happens to her. Even if she knows that her hometown is about to be overrun by an invading army, she doesn’t have the option to just leave). What with all the terrible things that happen to her, I still can’t believe that ‘Cassandra’ ever caught on as a popular name in the modern world.
      Anyway, after Cassandra has her unpleasant run-in with Apollo, she has a doomed love affair with Coroebus, that hero who had his own unpleasant run-in with Apollo. I guess they had lots in common, plenty to talk about before they each died their very painful and tragic deaths. Coroebus, I would say, got the better deal, since he was killed off quickly in battle during the Trojan War, trying to defend Cassadra from some invading enemies. Cassandra survived the city’s fall, was sold into slavery, and almost certainly raped before she was murdered by her owner’s wife--and spent the entire time knowing what would happen and trying vainly to change the future. With all those grim horrors completed, I hope Apollo was satisfied with the level of cruelty he achieved against his enemies.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Orphans and Stepchildren, and the Cult of Heredity

      Even though you probably learned about Athens as the birthplace of democracy back in junior high social studies, in truth democracy came on the scene fairly late in Greek history, and there are plenty of myths about the kings of Athens. These kings-and-queens stories, recorded in the democratic era, tend to show contemporary tensions (for example, regarding the place of aristocracy in a democratic society, or about the meaning of being Athenian rather than foreign, or about parent-child relationships and how whippersnappers should revere their elders) played out allegorically by mythic characters. One great example is the story of Xuthus and Creusa.
      In Euripides’ tragedy Ion (this is an orphan-centered story about an atom that has tragically lost one of its electrons. Wait, what?), Creusa is an Athenian princess, whom Xuthus married to become king of Athens. Unfortunately, they’ve been unable to have any children together. They need children to carry on their royal line, so they go to an oracle to ask how they can have children. There’s never any question that the king might choose a successor on the basis of merit; rather than find the best successor available, he’s determined to choose one who is as genetically similar to himself as possible. There’s a certain level of irony to this, since Xuthus himself is hardly a carbon copy of the previous king; he’s not even Athenian, and his legitimacy as king depends on the fact that he married a princess with no brothers.
      Although oracles are notorious for being cryptic and misleading, here the oracle gives a refreshingly simple answer to the query. The oracle orders Xuthus to walk out of the temple and greet the first person he meets as his son. Note that the oracle doesn’t say that this person is his son, just that Xuthus should accept him as his son. Which is a pretty safe answer for the oracle to give, probably; if a king comes in to an oracle demanding a son, and the oracle advises him to adopt the first random dude he meets on the street--well, it’s not like most people would turn down the chance to be king, right? Xuthus cheerfully follows the instructions, and the random dude, after some initial confusion, consents to be adopted by this distinguished stranger.
      There is something laughable about Xuthus being so delusionally desperate to have a genetically-related son that he will accept any improbable story that yields him one. The random dude, whose name is Ion, is an orphan and so not in a position to correct Xuthus when he rolls in claiming to be his dad. But Ion, unlike Xuthus, harbors a healthy degree of curiosity and skepticism about this claim that they’re related. He asks Xuthus probing questions like, ‘So who was my mother?’ and ‘What do you mean, you don’t know who my mother is?’ and ‘How did you father a child without even realizing it?’ and ‘Isn’t that incredibly irresponsible behavior for a king?’ and ‘What am I doing living here, if you live in another city?’ to which Xuthus replies with an extremely weak ‘Gee, I dunno, I guess I visited this place and got drunk and got some girl pregnant and then left town and totally forgot about all the floozies I might have slept with on the road.’ He is uninterested in tracking down the boy’s mother or confirming the story in any way. He got what he wanted: one son, full grown! And now he seems nervous about facing any suspicions that might poke holes in the oracle’s unlikely story.
      Such suspicions would be fully justified, since the oracle actually is misleading Xuthus: Ion isn’t his son in any genetic sense. Xuthus is not terribly bright and a lot of things get by him; he has no idea that his wife Creusa was raped by Apollo before they were married, and she secretly gave birth to a child. She had to abandon the child to avoid being outcast from her family, but Apollo took care of the child and in fact had it brought up in this same oracular shrine, ready to be adopted by Xuthus when he had trouble having his own children. Ion is actually his stepchild or his adopted child, but Xuthus is so fixated on his idea of having his own child that he’s willing to fabricate memories for himself to account for a son he doesn’t remember siring.
      Creusa is even worse. She discovers that Ion is really her son, and is overjoyed to recover him after so long a separation. Before she learns that, though, she believes Xuthus’ story that Ion is the product of his drunken indiscretions, and immediately becomes the wicked stepmother, going so far as to attempt to poison her supposed stepson. When she learns that he is really her son and not her husband’s, she abandons all plans to kill him and welcomes him gladly. In short, she knows next to nothing about this stranger, but she is making life-or-death decisions about him based on information about who had sex with whom before he was born. She doesn’t care what sort of person he is, whether he would be a good ruler, or whether he has a personality she wants to deal with at breakfast every morning; her decisions are based not on his own qualities or actions, but on who his ancestors are.
      The most ridiculous part, I would say, is that once Creusa learns that she is Ion’s mother, she realizes that her life will be much easier if Xuthus never learns the truth--that she was an unwed teenage mother before their marriage--and is allowed to persist in his happy delusion that Ion is his son. Unlike most Greek tragedies, this one ends not in a torrent of blood, but with everyone making up and going home, the king secure in his willful ignorance. Because Ion is Creusa’s son, descended from the royal line of Athens, we’re supposed to presume that he will be a good king ever after, that he will have an innate talent for kingship and administration and justice--but the rash actions of Creusa, and the stolidity of the contemporary king, hardly inspire confidence on that account.