S is for Salmoneus and Sisyphus

Sisyphus_by_von_StuckSalmoneus and Sisyphus were two Greek legendary mortal brothers, who hated one another, but they had one thing in common which brought on their sad ends in the hands of Zeus.

Salmoneus was the arrogant ruler of Salmone, who forced his subjects to worship him instead of Zeus. He insisted that he was as mighty as the great God. He tied sound making contraptions like copper kettles to his chariot and insisted that the noise the contraptions made when he drove by, was louder than the sound of Zeus’ thunder. He also threw torches of light around and proclaimed that these were more powerful than Zeus’ lightning. Zeus watched him for a while, and then just struck him and his kingdom down, with a real thunderbolt. End of Salmoneus.

Sisyphus, his brother and the founder king of Corinth, was trickier than Salmoneus and gave the Gods quite a run around, before he succumbed to their superior strength.
To begin with, he violated the concept of Xenia, which assured hospitality and generous conduct on the part of a king, to visitors and traders that came to his land. Zeus was the God in charge of Xenia and Sisyphus killed and tortured his guests with impunity, much to the chagrin of Zeus.

Another time, he incurred the wrath of Zeus, by giving away the hiding place of Aegina (a love interest of Zeus) to her father, the river God Asopus, in return for having a spring flow through a certain part of his kingdom.

Zeus ordered either Hades (king of the underworld), or according to some stories Thanatos (Death), to take away Sisyphus to Tartarus, deep under the belly of the earth and shackle him there for eternity. However Sisyphus tricked the God into showing him how the shackling system worked, and in the process Sisyphus shackled the hapless God and returned to the surface of the earth.

Later when he actually died and was sent to the world of the dead, he convinced Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld, that it was all a terrible mistake and got himself sent back to the world of the living.

Ultimately, Zeus pinned him down and punished him with an endless useless back breaking job. Sisyphus was condemned to keep rolling a heavy boulder up a mountain, which then would always fall back to the ground from the top, and Sisyphus would have to repeat the thankless job for eternity. The term Sisyphean task has since come to mean a useless and repetitive task.
Thus ends the story of the two sons of King Aeolus. One thought he was as grand as Zeus and the other thought that he was smarter than Zeus and other Gods.

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R is for the Reluctant Hero and his Revenge

trojan horseOdysseus was the legendary king of Ithaca, the hero of Homer’s epic Odyssey and a key player in other Greek epics. He also went by the name of Ulysses, and we will in all probability come back to some of his heroic deeds when we get to the letter ‘U’ in a few days. But today, we have a story, that talks about two non heroic aspects that Odysseus was known for – reluctance and revenge.

In the Trojan War, Odysseus was an important player on the side of the Greek contingency, and many a victory was attributed to his strategy, council, cunning and bravery. It was Odysseus’s idea to create the Trojan horse, which ultimately led to the downfall of Troy.

Paris, a prince of Troy, visited Sparta. Here he was received graciously as a guest by Menelaus, the King of Sparta. But in the absence of the host, Paris wooed and absconded with his host’s wife, Helen,

Helen was the most beautiful woman on earth and many a prince and king had vied for her attention till she had chosen Menelaus as her husband. Her ex suitors were under an oath to protect Helen, if she was ever in danger.

When king Menelaus returned home and found his wife missing, he approached the many ex-suitors, to join them in his attempt to get Helen back from Troy. Some joined enthusiastically, while some were reluctant, among them was our hero Odysseus.

Odysseus, had long gotten over his infatuation for Helen. He was now a happily married man, a loving husband to his wife Penelope and a devoted father to his new born son. Moreover there had been an oracle, which had stated that if Odysseus did go to war, it would be many years before he could come back home. So naturally, when he knew that the envoys of King Menelaus were on their way to seek his support, he decided to fool them into believing that he had lost his mind, and would be of no use in the war against Troy.

He dressed himself up as a mad man, hitched a donkey and an ox to a plough and pretended to plough a sandy beach, intermittently throwing salt around as if they were seeds being sown. The envoys were aghast to see the mighty Odysseus in this pitiable state, and they would have left him alone, had it not been for the cunning of a nobleman by the name of Palamedes.

Palamedes threw Odysseus’s new born son, in front of the plough and Odysseus, immediately veered the plough away, and jumped to the rescue of his son. Thus he was caught in his pretence and had no way out from the oath taken in an earlier time. He was forced to join the Greek contingency.

Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for his cunning, and had him killed as soon as found a chance. According to one story, Odysseus planted a treasure in Palamedes quarters. He then got a letter forged, which implied that Palamedes, had turned a traitor, and had been gifted valuable treasures in appreciation for his help to the enemy, the king of Troy. Later he got Palamedes quarters searched and found the planted gold. Palamedes was tried as a traitor, found guilty and stoned to death.

Thus ends the story of Odysseus’s reluctance and revenge. That it took the poor man, twenty years before he could get back to his wife and son, is a story for another day.

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Q is for Quandary

quandryQ has left me in a quandary. You see, I did not find a character from Greek mythology, whose name starts with Q. Initially this did not disturb me at all, for I had faced the same problem last year, with Indian mythology and I had circumvented the problem, by blogging on ‘Q is for the Questions that must be answered’. The problem, this year, is that with Greek mythology, I am on thin ice. I do not know enough to ask a meaningful question.

There is however one ill thought out, half-baked question that does arise. The question is, ‘Why were the Greek Gods (and this may be true for all ancient Gods) so painfully human? They were egoistic, cruel, uncaring, greedy, vain, lusty, cunning creatures; how could they be Gods? The only thing that separated them from the mortals, was that they were very powerful and that they were immortal. These two qualities to me at first glance were not enough to qualify a character as a God!

As I said, it was a half formed question, because, there immediately arose a counter question? ‘Are you saying Erica, that only your idea of God is a valid one? What if you were to accept that the ancient Greeks had the right to formulate the attributes of their Gods just as much as you do of yours? You say unconditional love and compassion are the attributes of a God while they say unconditional power, immortality… What is there to question, to each his own.”

And so folks, my nascent question was crushed in its infancy and I was left in a quandary!

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P is for Prometheus and Pandora

pandoraPrometheus was an immortal, the son of Titans, Iapetus and Clymene. In the war between the Titans Prometheus, though a Titan, sided with the Olympians and Zeus. When Zeus emerged victorious from the war, he expressed his gratitude to Prometheus, by putting him in charge of creating life on earth.

At first, Prometheus created prototypes of lower animals, and only after Zeus approved of the creation, did Prometheus breathe life into these creations. But Prometheus was getting more creative and Zeus clearly did not approve of his creativity. So when Prometheus built man in the image of God, he did so on the sly and gave life to his creation without telling Zeus anything about his latest creation. When Zeus saw man, he was very angry, but the deed was done.

Having created man, Prometheus did many things to make their life easier. He tricked Zeus into letting man take the best part of a sacrificial animal. However when Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gifted it to man, Zeus had enough. For, he thought that with the knowledge of fire, the men would no longer fear Zeus or the Gods.

Zeus decided to punish both the creator, Prometheus and his rebellious creation, man. Zeus punished Prometheus, by tying him to a rock for eternity. Every day, an eagle would come and rip his side open, and eat his liver and the following day, the liver would grow back only for the process to be repeated. It is said, that Zeus let Prometheus go after thirty thousand years because Prometheus had some valuable information for Zeus, which he traded for his liberty.

As for, the creation man, Zeus had a horrible plan. He asked the God Hephaestus, to fashion a beautiful creature that would attract man. This creation had all the qualities that would make man feel complete, and man would be drawn to her. He called the first woman thus created Pandora. He then sent Pandora to earth, with a box and with strict instructions not to open the box ever. Zeus may have been an ancient God, but he knew reverse psychology.

Pandora was accepted as a wife by the brother of Prometheus. And once the excitement of being married was over, Pandora had some time to look at the box. Inquisitiveness got the better of her, as Zeus knew it would.
She decided to take a little peak into the box, and out flew the miseries of mankind, that Zeus had packed into the box. There was anger, jealousy, hatred, greed, famine…. The miseries spread far and wide and would forever make the life of man miserable. Only Hope lay in the box quiet, promising to bring relief to man in the most frustrating and fearful of times.

The blaming of woman, for all the troubles of man, is as old as the hills and we find it here too, in Greek mythology.

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O is for Orpheus the lover

orpheusOrpheus was the prince of Thrace. He was a poet and a great musician, It is said, that he learnt to play the lyre from Apollo, the God of Music himself, and that when he played on his lyre, not just mortals and Gods but animals, plants and even rocks and water bodies were moved.

Orpheus was one of the Argonauts, who went with Jason, to get the Golden Fleece. It was his music that saved the Argonauts from being bewitched by the song of the sirens at sea and crashing their ship on the reefs. The man is however best known for his attempt to bring the love of his life back from the land of the dead.

While on his adventure aboard the Argos, he met and fell in love with a nymph, by the name of Eurydice. The two were soon married and very happy together. But tragedy struck, Eurydice died from the bite of a poisonous snake and Orpheus was heartbroken.

Orpheus followed his wife to the land of the dead. There he sat and played mournfully on his lyre. It is said, that his music was so beautiful, that the ferocious guards of the underworld sobbed like lost children and in the end, even Hades, the gruff God of the underworld had tears rolling down his cheek.

Moved by the depth of Orpheus’ love for his wife and the beauty of his music, Hades did the unthinkable. He said, he would allow Orpheus, to take his dead wife, back into the land of the living, but there was one condition. Neither Orpheus nor Eurydice, were to look back until both were safely out of the underworld. Orpheus readily agreed.

Orpheus led the way, and the pale ghostly Eurydice followed. The way was long and treacherous. Orpheus often wanted to look back and check whether Eurydice was able to keep up with him or not. But he dared not do so, and instead nervously plucked on his lyre, hoping that Eurydice, would be guided by the sound in the darkness that enveloped them.

After many days, Orpheus, could see a hint of light in the far distance. He was so excited, that he turned towards Eurydice! The promise to Hades had been broken, and Orpheus, looked helplessly as his beloved wife, was pulled back into the land of the dead.

Orpheus came back, but he was a broken man. His mind continuously went over the sequence of events that had led to the loss of Eurydice. He lost interest in life and love.

The fact that he was a follower of Apollo and that he had given up on the pleasures of life, drove the Maenads (the female followers of Dionysus) crazy, and they tore his body apart in a frenzy. They threw his head into the river Hebrus.

It is said, that his head sang as it floated down the river, from where it landed into the ocean and finally washed up on the shores of the island Lesbos. Here the head was put to rest in a cave, which then became the Oracle of Orpheus.
The story Orpheus the mortal and his love for his wife, comes as a welcome whiff of fresh air after listening to the many escapades of the Gods and other immortals.

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N is for Nephele the Doppelganger

nephele3Nephele is the only doppelganger I have come across so far in Greek Mythology. Many of us, who have been following the painful stories of Zeus’ lustful adventures, and Hera’s jealous rage, would think that the great Zeus, had enough trouble with one Hera. But it seems, that it was Zeus who created Nephele from a cloud in the exact likeness of his jealous wife Hera.

Hera had a mortal admirer, who went by the name of Ixion. Zeus created Nephele in the likeness of Hera, and left her alone with Ixion, to see if Ixion would attempt to get close to the false Hera. Ixion did, got caught in the act by Zeus, who then promptly and unceremoniously spun Ixion off to the underworld as everlasting punishment for his misdeed. Zeus of course did not understand the concept of hypocrisy.

Zeus then married Nephele off to the simple minded king Athamus, with whom she had two children Phrixus and Helle.  Athamus , as it turns out was not as simple minded as he looked, and after some time Athamus tired of the poor cloud likeness finds solace in the arms of Ino, a mortal princess in her own rights.

Ino, the new woman in Athamus’ life, hatches a devious plan, to get rid of the two grown children of Nephele. She first scorches all the seeds in the kingdom and waits for the farmers to go to the Oracle. When the farmers land up at the Oracle, seeking advice on a way to please the Gods and save their crops, the Oracle who has been bribed by Ino, says that the only way to appease the Gods is to sacrifice Phryxus, the son of Nephele. But as the farmers are carrying away Phryxus, Nephele comes and rescues her children by carrying them away, on a flying golden Ram.

Helle, the daughter could not be saved, but Phryxus her son reaches the island of Cochlys safely, where he marries the daughter of the king Aeetes and in gratitude, gives Aetees the Golden Fleece from his golden Ram. Later Jason and the Argonauts would have an adventure in trying to get the Golden Fleece back.

Not bad for a cloud, I say.

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M is for the Monster Medusa

Medusa2As a child, I had read the story of the hero Perseus. In this story, Medusa was introduced as the huge, evil, ugly, monster, with deadly wriggly snakes for hair. She was so evil we were told, that one look at her, would turn any man or woman into stone! It was Perseus’ heroic task to chop the ugly monster’s head and bring it back to the King of Seriphos. The story ended with Perseus, accomplishing his dangerous mission and doing a few more heroic deeds on the way back. As a child, I was a little in love with the hero Perseus. As an adult, when I revisited the story of Medusa, this is what I found.

Medusa was the beautiful mortal child of the two immortal siblings Phorkys and Keto, and the granddaughter of Gaea and Oceanus … As a baby, she was so beautiful, that her mother found it difficult to move about in public spaces, for the immortals would gather around the pram and admire the baby for hours. Thus little Medusa grew up, loved by family and friends, admired by both mortals and immortals. When she grew into adolescence, many a youth vied for her attention and many a heart broke. Medusa refused her many suitors, waiting for the man of her dreams to come along, with whom she imagined she would live happily ever after.

All that changed one day. Medusa had been out, walking for a while, when she became aware of Poisedon, following her. Poisedon was the powerful God of Sea, Earthquake and Horses. He also was a close ally and brother of the great Zeus. The brothers were known for their lustful ways and young Medusa was scared. She walked faster, and then started running, hoping to shake Poisedon off. But Poisedon, easily kept up with her in big wave like steps. At last the hapless girl dashed into the temple of Athena and hid there, for she was sure that Poisedon, would do nothing wrong in the temple. She was wrong. Poisedon followed her, pinned her down and raped her in the temple of the Goddess Athena.
Athena, heard the commotion, and came running into her temple, and caught Poisedon in the act. She waited for him to finish, zip up and leave and then turned her wrath on the shivering raped child-woman. The Goddess screamed and ranted and blamed Medusa for desecrating her precious temple. As if this was not enough, she put a curse on Medusa and turned the beautiful young girl into a huge, hideous monster, with blotchy wrinkled skin, red fierce eyes and wriggly poisonous snakes for hair. The final curse, was that anyone who looked at her would immediately be turned to stone. Medusa heart broken and wretched hid herself in the far away island of Sarpedon, with only her two sisters for company.

You would think, that the poor girl, would be left alone. Wrong again. Every now and then, some young man would feel the need to be a hero, or be sent on a hero’s quest for various ulterior motives of those in power. Medusa’s head was often the coveted prize. Many young hopefuls landed on the island of Sarpedon, but one look at Medusa and each one was turned to stone.
Perseus (a son of Zeus) was one such hero, and his stone likeness too would have adorned the island of Sarpedon, had he not had the unfair advantage, that the Gods had provided him with. The God Hephaestus gave him a mighty sword, Athena (yes, her again) gave the young hero a mirrored shield, Hermes gave him winged sandals and Hades the God of the underworld, gave him the cloak of darkness. Armed with these gifts, the hero travelled to the island of Sarpedon on winged sandals, moved around invisible covered in his cloak of darkness, waited for Medusa to fall asleep, looked at her through the mirrored shield and chopped of her head with the sword of Hephaestus. He then put the chopped head in a bag, and escaped. Thus ended the story of a beautiful girl whose name was Medusa.

This story is a timely reminder, of the importance of revisiting the stories of our childhood and looking afresh in the light of our ever expanding understanding and compassion at the heroes and villains, Gods and demons that we had created with the limited understanding that we had as children.

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