Z is for Zeus

Zeus has been mentioned nearly in every blog of this series. And throughout, I have not been kind to him. Basically the idea of consent was not in his vocabulary, maybe it was not in the vocabulary of those times. However, as we end this series, one thing stands out quite clearly that is praiseworthy about the Zeus and I would like to end on that note.

Zeus came from a line of abusive fathers. His grandfather Uranus, pushed his children back into the depths of his mates womb, and intended to keep his children imprisoned there forever. His tyranny ended only when his son Kronus chopped off his manhood and sent him into oblivion.

Zeus’ father Kronus was no better himself. He swallowed his own children at birth, and intended to keep them imprisoned in his own body forever. Kronus had to be tricked into throwing up his full grown children by his last born, Zeus.

Given this history, Zeus took it upon himself to break this tradition of  abusive parenting. He saw to it that each of his children flourished. irrespective of whether they were born from his wife Hera or any other woman. In fact, he went to great lengths to save his children born out of wedlock from the wrath of Hera. Apollo, Artemis, Hermes…. Moreover, he saw to it that each one was given kingship or Godship over a realm.

I have to admit, that Zeus was a loving father.

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Y is for Yearning

erotesThe ancient Greeks recognized the importance of the place of yearning in mythology, and had separate Gods who were in charge of various kinds of yearnings and longings. Pothos for example is a winged God of desire/longing/yearning for one who is absent. Aphrodite, Eros are some of the other Gods linked to love, yearning and desire.

Hera yearned for the undivided attention of her husband Zeus, while Zeus yearned for ever so many Goddesses and mortals. A most mismatched couple as far as yearnings of the heart go.
Demeter yearned for the return of her daughter Persephone from the underworld, and moved heaven and earth to get her back from Hades her daughter’s abductor and husband who also yearned for Persephone’s company in the underworld. It was the poet Orpheus yearning for his dead wife Eurydice that made him undertake the long journey to the underworld and try and bring his wife back from the land of the dead. It was Paris’s yearning for the most beautiful woman on earth that led to the Trojan War…

Yearning, an intense longing or desire is a great motivator for all kinds of stories and myths to emerge

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X is for Xenia

xeniaXenia in ancient Greece, was a code of conduct that was to be strictly observed between a host and someone who had landed up at his door invited or uninvited. The rules applied to all, the Gods, kings and even the common man. Someone in need who turned up at your door, was to be treated with respect, honour and compassion. He or she was to be fed, provided with a bath and a bed and allowed to rest. Later when it was time to leave, it was customary to give presents to the guest. The guests in turn, were to honour and be respectable of the host and his belongings. They were to stay as a guest only as long as it was necessary and not become an undue nuisance to the host. Zeus did not take kindly to those who neglected the practice Xenia, for he was in charge of seeing that the code of conduct was strictly observed.

Here are some of the examples from my recent blogs, where Xenia had been observed and some where it had been not.

Odysseus, on his journey back home, finds himself in a storm sent by Poisedon that wrecks his ship, kills his people and washes him up bruised and naked on the island of Phaeacia. Here no one recognizes him, and he is not even asked for his identity. He should not be, till he has been provided with his necessities and pleasures that the host can supply. He is given food and clothing by princess Aleinous and later the king of Phaeacia, gives him a ship and men to sail home. It is interesting to note, that all this hospitality was extended without knowing the strangers identity. Xenia in this case had been amply observed.

Again back in Ithaca, Odysseus the king now dressed as a beggar comes to the house of a faithful servant. The servant does not recognize Odysseus, but the poor man treats the beggar to food, shelter and company. He later takes him to the palace, on request from the beggar. Another example of the graceful observance of Xenia.

The hundred princes on the other hand, who had settled down for long in Odysseus’s palace, in his absence, eating, drinking and making merry at his expense and refusing to leave till queen Penelope married one of them, were clearly violating Xenia.

Ixion molesting a woman, he thought was his host Zeus’ wife was a clear violation of Xenia. Tantalos, while an honoured guest of Zeus, happily pilfered the hosts food and taking it back to his kingdom, was yet another example of the guest not honouring the code of conduct. Equally, when he slyly tried to feed the Gods, meat made from his slaughtered son’s body, he fails in honouring the concept as a host.

The concept of Greek Xenia is very near to the अतिथिदेवो भव (pronounced Athithhi Devo Bhavo) sentiment dear to the ancient Indians, where a guest at your door was equivalent to, and to be treated as a God. Today in this day of terrorists and refugees, we have moved far from the idea of Xenia.

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W is for the Wooden Horse

Helen had been wooed and cwooden horsearried away from her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta by Paris, prince of Troy. The Greek wanted Helen back and had laid siege on the city of Troy for ten long years. The country side of Troy had been devastated, but the city of Troy was well protected. The Trojans grew their own food and had water sources within the city gates, so the people of Troy could withstand the Greek siege for ever, or so it seemed to the Greeks (Urban planners please note). Anyway, Odysseus had enough of the war. He really wanted to get back home. He knew that Troy could not be won from the outside, the Greek had to get into the city. He thought of many ways in which this could be accomplished and at last hit upon the idea of the Wooden Horse.

A huge wooden horse was to be made, with a well-hidden door in the underbelly of the horse and a latch from the inside. The horse would have to be very large, to make it attractive as a novelty as well as to hide thirty soldiers within it. Carpenters were called and the horse was completed to the satisfaction of the Greeks. And on it Odysseus had a message inscribed, that said that this was a gift to the people of Troy, from the retreating Greeks, in return for letting them sail back safely to their homeland.

Next, the Greeks had to make it look like they had indeed retreated and sailed back home. They uprooted their own military camp and sailed away, but just to the next island, a few miles away from Troy. Here they lay in waiting, to come back under the cover of the next night.

As part of the plan, they also left behind a tattered and beaten up soldier named Sinon. Sinon was to gain the confidence of the enemy with a sad story of having escaped from the wrath of Odysseus. Having done this, it was his job to allay any suspicion that the Trojans may have about taking the horse into the city. He would convince the Trojans that this horse was under the protection of the Goddess Athene and any city that was the home of this horse, would forever be protected from any invasion for all time to come. This would surely be sweet music to the Trojans, who had been under siege from the Greek for ten long years.

The next morning, when the Trojan soldiers looked out from their watch towers on the city walls, they were surprised to see that the enemy had broken camp and left, and in the ruins was a huge wooden horse. They slowly gathered courage to go out and check out the horse. They wondered what this could mean. Then the inscription was found, that said that this was a gift from the Greek in return for not giving them chase and letting them sail home in peace. The news spread like wild fire and soon the whole city was out and looking at the horse in wonder. Could this be true? Was the war over? Was this a gift? Many tired from years of war, were most ready to take the gift at face value. But there were nay-sayers. Among them was Cassandra, but the merry people of Troy just laughed her fears off. There was however a priest from the temple of Apollo called Laocoon. He too warned the Trojans that this horse would cause the destruction of Troy. But the horse stood there gleaming in the morning sun, bringing hope to the siege weary Trojan heart.

King Priam of Troy was trying to make up his mind, when Sinon the soldier made himself visible and played his part to perfection. Now there was more support to take the gift horse in, even if it meant breaking a part of the wall temporarily, as the gift was too big to go through the city gates. The protection of Athene meant a lot to a people who had been under siege for so long.

But Laocoon’s voice was loud and doubts lingered. However in those moments of confusion, a strange thing happened. Two sea serpents came out of the sea and carried away the two sons of Laocoon! That settled the matter. This was seen as a sign from the Gods to silence the principle nay-sayer. The people pulled the Wooden Horse into the city on the wheels that the Greek had obligingly fitted the gift with. That night there was great rejoicing, singing, dancing and merry making throughout the kingdom of Troy, and soon the city slept like it had not slept in a long time. Only Cassandras wails could be heard deep into the night, but the Trojan’s had long learnt to disregard her cries.

As the citizens of Troy gently snored and dreamed, the Greek sailed back to their abandoned camp. The soldiers in the horse, unlatched themselves, jumped out, caught the sleepy sentinels of Troy off guard, killed them and threw the city gates open. The rest of the Greek soldiers trooped in. By the time, the citizens of Troy realized what was happening, it was too late. There was a mass orgy of rape, loot and killing. The streets of Troy that a few hours back had been the scene of much merriment, now flowed with the blood of the men women and children of Troy. The air was rent with the hapless cries of those yet to meet their gory end in the hands of the Greek soldiers. That night, Troy was razed to the ground.
As for Helen and her face that launched a thousand ships, she was taken back by Menelaus. Menelaus had every intention of killing her for her treachery, but one look at that face and he could do nothing but fall in love all over again.
What is it that they say, about never looking a gift horse in the mouth? Fine, don’t… but please do check the underbelly!

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V is for the Vulnerable Spot


Achilles like Ulysses was a great Greek mortal hero. His mother, Thetis was an immortal, who had caught the fancy of Zeus. But Zeus put a lid on his passion, when he learnt that a son of Thetis was destined to be greater than his father. Zeus then hastily got her married to a mortal hero Peleus. Thetis, never got over the fact that she an immortal had been forced to marry a mortal. Her worst fear was that her children would be mere mortals. Each time she had a child with Peleus, she threw her new born into the fire, hoping that the fire would melt away all that was mortal in her child, leaving the immortal part behind. However each time, the child just died. When the seventh son was born, and she was about to throw the child into the fire, her husband Peleus stopped her. This child was Achilles.

Achilles grew into a strong, brave and handsome boy. His mother loved him dearly, but she still worried about his mortality. One day, she took him to the river Styx that runs through the underworld and has the power to bestow immortality on those who take a dip in its waters. She held her boy upside down at the heels and dipped him from head to foot in the water. All of Achilles body thus became invincible, except for the heels, which had not been exposed to the water, and remained his vulnerable spot.

The boy grew up to be a great warrior and was called on for help on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War. He fought bravely, but towards the end of the war, a poisoned arrow from the bow of Paris, hit Achilles in his heel, his vulnerable spot and he died. For all his mother’s efforts, Achilles died like a mortal.

The phrase Achilles heel has thus come to mean a weak spot in an otherwise strong unit.

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U is for Ulysses

PolyphemusUlysses the Greek hero has already featured under R, where we talked about his reluctance to join the Trojan War and his revenge on the man who blew his cover, thus forcing him to fight for ten long years at the Trojan War. He fought bravely and as soon as Troy was won, our hero wanted to go back home as quickly possible. But it took him another ten years to reach his kingdom. These wanderings too were not out of choice, but his ship landed at various islands, driven more by fate than by design and at every port he had an adventure. This is the story of one such adventure, when our hero literally chose to be Nobody!

Ulysses and his crew found themselves in a land which was the home to the giant one eyed monsters, the Cyclops. The Cyclops of this island were shepherds and lived on sheep meat and cheese, but a tasty human snack was something they looked forward to.

The new arrivals wondered around the island, till they found a cave. There was a huge boulder lying carelessly on the side and the cave was open and inviting. Inside, there were goats tied in a corner and cheese hanging from the walls. The tired warriors, quickly killed a few goat, cooked them over a roaring fire, had a hearty meal which they then washed down with some wine and cheese. Then they rested.

What they did not know is that the cave belonged to the cyclops called Polyphemus, who was the son of the Sea God Poisedon. Polyphemus returned home and was pleasantly surprised to see that tasty human had walked into his cave. He quickly rolled the boulder in place, and ate a handful of men. In the morning he repeated his meal and went out to graze his sheep after ensuring that the boulder was firmly put in place. The men could not escape but while the giant was away, Ulysses and his men, sharpened a long stake and hid it in the cave.

In the evening, Polyphemus entered his cave and quickly rolled the boulder back into its place. He then stretched out his hands and grabbed a few men, for a light snack. Ulysses stepped up and offered the giant some of the potent wine that they had carried from a different land. After he had quickly downed three giant glasses, his speech was slurry and his eye was droopy. Ulysses was polite to a fault. He introduced himself as Nobody, and asked the giant his name. The giant now half asleep, mumbled, ‘my name is Polyphemus, and I promise to eat you last dear Nobody.’ And then he was snoring.

Quickly our hero and his men heated the stake in the roaring fire and pushed it into the cyclops single eye, thus blinding him. When the other cyclops heard Polyphemus roar in pain, they asked, “What’s the matter Polyphemus? Do you ned some help?” The giant cried back, “Nobody is hurting me.” And so it seems, the Cyclops left him alone.

The next day, the conscientious Polyphemus, rolled the boulder away, and let his sheep out. Eye or no eye, he had decided that he would take the sheep out grazing in the day, and he would come back in the evening and treat himself to tasty human meat. But what he did not know was that Ulysses and his team, had tied themselves to the underbellies of the giant woolly sheep. Once the sheep were out, the men quickly untied themselves and ran towards their ship. It’s only after they set sail that Ulysses shouted out his true name. Polyphemus tried to stop them, but he was blinded and anyway it was too late. The heroes were free and far away out at sea.

I am going to have fun saying this, just because it’s so obvious. There is some merit in being a Nobody even when you really are a Greek hero of epic proportion!

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T is for Tantalus

tantalosTantalus the king of Sipylus, was a son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto. As a son of Zeus. He had a good life, but much like the two brothers who featured in S, he proved to be too clever for his own good, and that lead to his ultimate sad fate.

Often, he was invited to Olympus as a guest of Zeus but there he took to stealing nectar and ambrosia, the food of the Gods, and bringing it back for mortals on land. This angered Zeus, but he did not punish his son.

Emboldened, Tantalus played more pranks, and one day he decided to test the Gods in a most gruesome manner. He invited the Gods to his kingdom, and served them a delicious meat curry, cooked from the flesh of his own butchered son. The Gods knew and refused to touch the meal, except for the Goddess Demeter, who was so enveloped in grief over the loss of her daughter Persephone, that she lost her discernment and ate a piece of the shoulder. Zeus was so angry, that he killed Tantalus right there and banished him to Tartarus, the underworld with a very specific punishment for his atrocious deeds.

Tantalus was made to stand in neck deep cool refreshing water for all eternity with a bough of juicy ripe fruits hanging right over him! I can see that you are wondering how this can be punishment. Well, whenever he tried to drink the water, the water would recede just out of his reach, and when he tried to pluck a fruit, the bough would rise just a little, so that the fruit too was for ever out of his reach. And so Tantalus, stand thirsty and hungry forever with water and delicious food tantalisingly near yet just out of his reach. As if this is not enough, an enormous stone hangs precariously over his thirsty and hungry head and body for eternity.

And yes, the word ‘tantalize’ does come from this over-smart character in Greek mythology.

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