The Greek Myths
f. Queen Persephone, however, can be both gracious and merciful. She is faithful to Hades, but has had no children by him and prefers the company of Hecate, goddess of witches, to his.11 Zeus himself honours Hecate so greatly that he never denies her the ancient power which she has always enjoyed: of bestowing on mortals, or withholding from them, any desired gift. She has three bodies and three heads-lion, dog, and mare.12
g. Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera, the Erinnyes or Furies, live in Erebus, and are older than Zeus or any of the other Olympians. Their task is to hear complaints brought by mortals against the insolence of the young to the aged, of children to parents, of hosts to guests, and of householders or city councils to suppliants – and to punish such crimes by hounding the culprits relentlessly, without rest or pause, from city to city and from country to country. These Erinnyes are crones, with snakes for hair, dogs’ heads, coal-black bodies, bats’ wings, and bloodshot eyes. In their hands they carry brass-studded scourges, and their victims die in torment.13 It is unwise to mention them by name in conversation; hence they are usually styled the Eumenides, which means ‘The Kindly Ones’ – as Hades is styled Pluton, or Pluto, ‘The Rich One’.
1. Pausanias: x. 28. 1.
2. Apollodorus: ii. 5. 2; Strabo: viii. 5. 1.
3. Homer: Iliad viii. 368; Hesiod: Theogony 311; Apollodorus: loc. cit.; Euripides: Heracles 24.
4. Homer: Odyssey xi. 539; xi. 572–5; xi. 487–91.
5. Petelia Orphic Tablet.
6. Plato: Gorgias 168; Pindar: Olympian Odes ii. 68–80; Hesiod: Works and Days 167 ff.
7. Pausanias: iii. 19. 11; Philostratus: Heroica x. 32–40.
8. Strabo: viii. 3. 14; Servius on Virgil’s Eclogue vii. 61.
9. Homer: Iliad ix. 158–9; xx. 61.
10. Homer: Iliad ix. 567 ff.; Apollodorus: ii. 5. 10; Scholiast on Pindar’s Isthmian Odes vi. 32.
11. Apollonius Rhodius: iii. 529; Ovid: Metamorphoses xiv. 405; Scholiast on Theocritus’s Idylls ii. 12.
12. Hesiod: Theogony 411–52.
1. The mythographers made a bold effort to reconcile the conflicting views of the afterworld held by the primitive inhabitants of Greece. One view was that ghosts lived in their tombs, or underground caverns or fissures, where they might take the form of serpents, mice, or bats, but never be reincarnate as human beings. Another was that the souls of sacred kings walked visibly on the sepulchral islands where their bodies had been buried. A third was that ghosts could become men again by entering beans, nuts, or fish, and being eaten by their prospective mothers. A fourth was that they went to the Far North, where the sun never shines, and returned, if at all, only as fertilizing winds. A fifth was that they went to the Far West, where the sun sets in the ocean, and a spirit world much like the present. A sixth was that a ghost received punishment according to the life he had led. To this the Orphics finally added the theory of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls: a process which could be to some degree controlled by the use of magical formulas.
2. Persephone and Hecate stood for the pre-Hellenic hope of regeneration; but Hades, a Hellenic concept for the ineluctability of death. Cronus, despite his bloody record, continued to enjoy the pleasures of Elysium, since that had always been the privilege of a sacred king, and Menelaus (Odyssey iv. 561) was promised the same enjoyment, not because he had been particularly virtuous or courageous but because he had married Helen, the priestess of the Spartan Moon-goddess (see 159. 1). The Homeric adjective asphodelos, applied only to leimönes (‘meadows’), probably means ‘in the valley of that which is not reduced to ashes’ (from a = not, spodos = ash, elos = valley) – namely the hero’s ghost after his body has been burned; and, except in acorn-eating Arcadia, asphodel roots and seeds, offered to such ghosts, made the staple Greek diet before the introduction of corn. Asphodel grows freely even on waterless islands and ghosts, like gods, are conservative in their diet. Elysium seems to mean ‘apple-land’ – alisier is a pre-Gallic word for sorb-apple – as do the Arthurian ‘Avalon’ and the Latin ‘Avernus’, or ‘Avolnus’, both formed from the Indo-European root abol, meaning apple.
3. Cerberus was the Greek counterpart of Anubis, the dog-headed son of the Libyan Death-goddess Nephthys, who conducted souls to the Underworld. In European folklore, which is partly of Libyan origin, the souls of the damned were hunted to the Northern Hell by a yelling pack of hounds – the hounds of Annwm, Herne, Arthur, or Gabriel – a myth derived from the noisy summer migration of wild geese to their breeding places in the Arctic circle. Cerberus was, at first, fifty-headed, like the spectral pack that destroyed Actaeon (see 22. 1); but afterwards three-headed, like his mistress Hecate (see 134. 1).
4. Styx (‘hated’), a small stream in Arcadia, the waters of which were supposed to be deadly poison, was located in Tartarus only by late mythographers. Acheron (‘stream of woe’) and Cocytus (‘wailing’) are fanciful names to describe the misery of death. Aornis (‘birdless’) is a Greek mistranslation of the Italic ‘Avernus’. Lethe means ‘forgetfulness’; and Erebus ‘covered’. Phlegethon (‘burning’) refers to the custom of cremation but also, perhaps, to the theory that sinners were burned in streams of lava. Tartarus seems to be a reduplication of the pre-Hellenic word tar, which occurs in the names of places lying to the West; its sense of infernality comes late.
5. Black poplars were sacred to the Death-goddess (see 51. 7 and 170. l); and white poplars, or aspens, either to Persephone as Goddess of Regeneration, or to Heracles because he harrowed Hell (see 134. f) – golden head-dresses of aspen leaves have been found in Mesopotamian burials of the fourth millennium B.C. The Orphic tablets do not name the tree by the pool of Memory; it is probably the white poplar into which Leuce was transformed, but possibly a nut-tree, the emblem of Wisdom (see 86. 1). White-cypress wood, regarded as an anti-corruptive, was used for household chests and coffins.
6. Hades had a temple at the foot of Mount Menthe in Elis, and his rape of Minthe (‘mint’) is probably deduced from the use of mint in funerary rites, together with rosemary and myrtle, to offset the smell of decay. Demeter’s barley-water drink at Eleusis was flavoured with mint (see 24. e). Though awarded the sun-cattle of Erytheia (‘red land’), because that was where the Sun met his nightly death, Hades is more usually called Cronus, or Geryon, in this context (see 132. 4).
7. Hesiod’s account of Hecate shows her to have been the original Triple-goddess, supreme in Heaven, on earth, and in Tartarus; but the Hellenes emphasized her destructive powers at the expense of her creative ones until, at last, she was invoked only in clandestine rites of black magic, especially at places where three roads met. That Zeus did not deny her the ancient power of granting every mortal his heart’s desire is a tribute to the Thessalian witches, of whom everyone stood in dread. Lion, dog, and horse, her heads, evidently refer to the ancient tripartite year, the dog being the Dog-star Sirius; as do also Cerberus’s heads.
8. Hecate’s companions, the Erinnyes, were personified pangs of conscience after the breaking of a taboo – at first only the taboo of insult, disobedience, or violence to a mother (see 105. k and 114. 1). Suppliants and guests came under the protection of Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth (see 20. c), and to ill-treat them would be to disobey and insult her.
9. Leuce, the largest island in the Black Sea, but very small at that, is now a treeless Rumanian penal colony (see 164.3).
TYCHE AND NEMESIS
TYCHE is a daughter of Zeus, to whom he has given power to decide what the fortune of this or that mortal shall be. On some she heaps gifts from a horn of plenty, others she deprives of all that they have. Tyche is altogether irresponsible in her awards, and runs about juggling with a ball to exemplify the uncertainty of chance: sometimes up, sometimes down. But if it ever happens that a ma
n, whom she has favoured, boasts of his abundant riches and neither sacrifices a part of them to the gods, nor alleviates the poverty of his fellow-citizens, then the ancient goddess Nemesis steps in to humiliate him.1 Nemesis, whose home is at Attic Rhamnus, carries an apple-bough in one hand, and a wheel in the other, and wears a silver crown adorned with stags; the scourge hangs at her girdle. She is a daughter of Oceanus and has something of Aprodite’s beauty.
b. Some say that Zeus once fell in love with Nemesis, and pursued her over the earth and through the sea. Though she constantly changed her shape, he violated her at last by adopting the form of a swan, and from the egg she laid came Helen, the cause of the Trojan War.2
1. Pindar: Olympian Odes xii. 1–2; Herodotus: i. 34 and iii. 40; Apollonius Rhodius: iv. 1042–3; Sophocles: Philoctetes 518.
2. Pausanias: i. 33. 3; Homer’s Cypria, quoted by Athenaeus p. 334b; Apollodorus: iii. 10. 7.
1. Tyche (‘fortune’), like Dice and Aedos (personifications of Natural Law, or Justice, and Shame), was an artificial deity invented by the early philosophers; whereas Nemesis (‘due enactment’) had been the Nymph-goddess of Death-in-Life (see 18. 3) whom they now redefined as a moral control on Tyche. That Nemesis’s wheel was originally the solar year is suggested by the name of her Latin counterpart, Fortuna (from vortumna, ‘she who turns the year about’). When the wheel had turned half circle, the sacred king, raised to the summit of his fortune, was fated to die – the Actaeon stags on her crown (see 22. i) announce this – but when it came full circle, he revenged himself on the rival who had supplanted him. Her scourge was formerly used for ritual flogging, to fructify the trees and crops, and the apple-bough was the king’s passport to Elysium (see 53. 5; 80. 4; and 133. 4).
2. The Nemesis whom Zeus chased (see 62. b), is not the philosophical concept of divine vengeance on overweening mortals, but the original Nymph-goddess, whose usual name was Leda. In pre-Hellenic myth, the goddess chases the sacred king and, although he goes through his seasonal transformations (see 30. 1), counters each of them in turn with her own, and devours him at the summer solstice. In Hellenic myth the parts are reversed: the goddess flees, changing shape, but the king pursues and finally violates her, as in the story of Zeus and Metis (see 9. d), or Peleus and Thetis (see 81. k). The required seasonal transformations will have been indicated on the spokes of Nemesis’s wheel; but in Homer’s Cypria only a fish and ‘various beasts’ are mentioned (see 89. 2). ‘Leda’ is another form of Leto, or Latona, whom the Python, not Zeus, chased (see 14. a). Swans were sacred to the goddess (Euripides: Iphigeneia Among the Taurians 1095 ff.), because of their white plumage, also because the V-formation of their flight was a female symbol, and because, at midsummer, they flew north to unknown breeding grounds, supposedly taking the dead king’s soul with them (see 33. 5 and 142. 2).
3. The philosophical Nemesis was worshipped at Rhamnus where, according to Pausanias (i. 33. 2–3), the Persian commander-in-chief, who had intended to set up a white marble trophy in celebration of his conquest of Attica, was forced to retire by news of a naval defeat at Salamis; the marble was used instead for an image of the local Nymph-goddess Nemesis. It is supposed to have been from this event that Nemesis came to personify ‘Divine vengeance’, rather than the ‘due enactment’ of the annual death drama; since to Homer, at any rate, nemesis had been merely a warm human feeling that payment should be duly made, or a task duly performed. But Nemesis the Nymph-goddess bore the title Adrasteia (‘inescapable’ – Strabo: xiii. 1. 13), which was also the name of Zeus’s foster-nurse, an ash-nymph (see 7. b); and since the ash-nymphs and the Erinnyes were sisters, born from the blood of Uranus, this may have been how Nemesis came to embody the idea of vengeance. The ash-tree was one of the goddess’s seasonal disguises, and an important one to her pastoral devotees, because of its association with thunderstorms and with the lambing month, the third of the sacral year (see 52. 3).
4. Nemesis is called a daughter of Oceanus, because as the Nymph-goddess with the apple-bough she was also the sea-born Aphrodite, sister of the Erynnyes (see 18. 4).
THE CHILDREN OF THE SEA
THE fifty Nereids, gentle and beneficent attendants on the Sea-goddess Thetis, are mermaids, daughters of the nymph Doris by Nereus, a prophetic old man of the sea, who has the power of changing his shape.1
b. The Phorcids, their cousins, children of Ceto by Phorcys, another wise old man of the sea, are Ladon, Echidne, and the three Gorgons, dwellers in Libya; the three Graeae; and, some say, the three Hesperides. The Gorgons were named Stheino, Euryale, and Medusa, all once beautiful. But one night Medusa lay with Poseidon, and Athene, enraged that they had bedded in one of her own temples, changed her into a winged monster with glaring eyes, huge teeth, protruding tongue, brazen claws and serpent locks, whose gaze turned men to stone. When eventually Perseus decapitated Medusa, and Poseidon’s children Chrysaor and Pegasus sprang from her dead body, Athene fastened the head to her aegis; but some say that the aegis was Medusa’s own skin, flayed from her by Athene.2
c. The Graeae are fair-faced and swan-like, but with hair grey from birth, and only one eye and one tooth between the three of them. Their names are Enyo, Pemphredo, and Deino.3
d. The three Hesperides, by name Hespere, Aegle, and Erytheis, live in the far-western orchard which Mother Earth gave to Hera. Some call them daughters of Night, others of Atlas and of Hesperis, daughter of Hesperus; sweetly they sing.4
e. Half of Echidne was lovely woman, half was speckled serpent. She once lived in a deep cave among the Arimi, where she ate men raw, and raised a brood of frightful monsters to her husband Typhon; but hundred-eyed Argus killed her while she slept.5
f. Ladon was wholly serpent, though gifted with the power of human speech, and guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides until Heracles shot him dead.6
g. Nereus, Phorcys, Thaumas, Eurybia, and Ceto were all children born to Pontus by Mother Earth; thus the Phorcids and Nereids claim cousinhood with the Harpies. These are the fair-haired and swift-winged daughters of Thaumas by the Ocean-nymph Electra, who snatch up criminals for punishment by the Erinnyes, and live in a Cretan cave.7
1. Homer: Iliad xviii. 36 ff.; Apollodorus: i. 2. 7.
2. Hesiod: Theogony 270 ff. and 333 ff; Apollodorus: ii. 4. 3; Ovid: Metamorphoses iv. 792–802; Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius iv. 1399; Euripides: Ion 989 ff.
3. Hesiod: Theogony 270–4; Apollodorus: ii. 4. 2.
4. Hesiod: Theogony 215 and 518; Diodorus Siculus: iv. 27. 2; Euripides: Heracles 394.
5. Homer: Iliad ii, 783; Hesiod: Theogony 295 ff.; Apollodorus: ii. 1. 2.
6. Hesiod: Theogony 333–5; Apollonius Rhodius: iv. 1397; Apollodorus: ii. 5. 11.
7. Apollodorus: i. 2. 6; Hesiod: Theogony 265–9; Homer: Odyssey xx. 77–8; Apollonius Rhodius: ii. 298–9.
1. It seems that the Moon-goddess’s title Eurynome (‘wide rule’ or ‘wide wandering’) proclaimed her ruler of heaven and earth; Eurybia (‘wide strength’), ruler of the sea; Eurydice (‘wide justice’) the serpent-grasping ruler of the Underworld. Male human sacrifices were offered to her as Eurydice, their death being apparently caused by viper’s venom (see 28. 4; 154. b and 168. e). Echnidne’s death at the hand of Argus probably refers to the suppression of the Serpent-goddess’s Argive cult. Her brother Ladon is the oracular serpent who haunts every paradise, his coils embracing the apple-tree (see 133. 4).
2. Among Eurybia’s other sea-titles were Thetis (‘disposer’), or its variant Tethys; Ceto, as the sea-monster corresponding with the Hebrew Rahab, or the Babylonian Tiamat (see 73. 7); Nereis, as the goddess of the wet element. Electra as provider of amber, a sea product highly valued by the ancients (see 148. 11); Thaumas, as wonderful; and Doris, as bountiful. Nereus – alias Proteus (‘first man’) – the prophetic ‘old man of the sea’, who took his name from Nereis, not contrariwise, seems to have been an oracular sacred king, buried on a coastal island (see 133. d); he is pictured in an early vase-paintin
g as fish-tailed, with a lion, a stag, and a viper emerging from his body. Proteus, in the Odyssey, similarly changed shapes, to mark the seasons through which the sacred king moved from birth to death (see 30. 1).
3. The fifty Nereids seem to have been a college of fifty Moon-priestesses, whose magic rites ensured good fishing; and the Gorgons, representatives of the Triple-goddess, wearing prophylactic masks – with scowl, glaring eyes, and protruding tongue between bared teeth – to frighten strangers from her Mysteries (see 73. 9). The Sons of Homer knew only a single Gorgon, who was a shade in Tartarus (Odyssey xi. 633–5), and whose head, an object of terror to Odysseus (Odyssey xi. 634), Athene wore on her aegis, doubtless to warn people against examining the divine mysteries hidden behind it. Greek bakers used to paint Gorgon masks on their ovens, to discourage busybodies from opening the oven door, peeping in, and thus allowing a draught to spoil the bread. The Gorgons’ names – Stheino (‘strong’), Euryale (‘wide roaming’), and Medusa (‘cunning one’) – are titles of the Moon-goddess; the Orphics called the moon’s face ‘the Gorgon’s head’.
4. Poseidon’s fathering of Pegasus on Medusa recalls his fathering of the horse Arion on Demeter, when she disguised herself as a mare, and her subsequent fury (see 16. f); both myths describe how Poseidon’s Hellenes forcibly married the Moon-priestesses, disregarding their Gorgon masks, and took over the rain-making rites of the sacred horse cult. But a mask of Demeter was still kept in a stone chest at Pheneus, and the priest of Demeter assumed it when he performed the ceremony of beating the Infernal Spirits with rods (Pausanias: viii. 15. 1).