Greece 2. My Favourite Myths
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Another area of exploration in an ever-expanding Connected Cultures portfolio. This time we are connecting with Ancient Culture and Greek mythology.
It was a great joy to visit Crete in August 2016 and to visualise some of the epic tales in the very landscape where the events took place. I trust you will forgive me if I get my mythology a little bit mixed up with my reality. It’s the way I see the world sometimes. So, here is part 2 of my Greek trilogy.
Time for some storytelling
Crete, the largest Greek island, was the birthplace of Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods. Zeus, god of the sky and king of the third generation of super gods. A mighty figure who strove to keep his fellow gods in check, but had rather more success in controlling the lives of mere mortals. A god who excelled at both revelry and destruction. Not to be trifled with, but never totally in charge.
Zeus - never one to drop the baton for the Olympians
Zeus was born in a cave - I’ve been there! – on the Lassithi plateau, suckled by a goat (Amalthea) and protected by his grandmother Gaia against his angry, hungry father Cronus.
Descending into the Dikteon Cave in Lassithi, birthplace of Zeus
Cronus, a powerful titan, was worried that his offspring would overthrow him. Why wouldn’t they? That’s what he did to his own father Uranus. So, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole, except for Zeus, who was hidden away. Ultimately, Cronus was undone by vomiting herbs, and Zeus’s five siblings, including Poseidon (god of the sea), Pluto (god of the underworld) and Hera (goddess of women and marriage) were all spewed up and out of the Titan’s belly. When grown up, Zeus married Hera (his sister) and proceeded to engage in a lifelong series of marital transgressions, many involving magical transformations.
Hera more than held her own and engaged in her own powerful deeds. In some ways she comes across as an ancient female / feminist role model. Her role and field of influence were extensive, drawing on her authority, dignity and creativity. This was not always respected by her wayward husband. At times, Hera responded with her own kind of ingenuity and mischief. In addition, Hera was Queen of the Atmosphere. The atmosphere in the Zeus household must have been really quite glacial at times.
Hera, Queen of the gods
Another of my favourite leading females in the mythological world is Aphrodite (Romans know her as Venus), the goddess of love and mother of Eros (Cupid to the Romans). How Aphrodite was created is quite an extraordinary and excruciating tale, and one that I dare not tell here. But I will just recount how, although she was all about love, Aphrodite became jealous of the beautiful maid Psyche. A bit like the wicked queen feeling threatened by Snow White. So, Aphrodite ordered her son to shoot the beautiful Psyche with his bow and arrow and to make her fall in low with some base, common thing.
'The Birth of Venus' (Aphrodite) by Boticelli
Eros, not prepared to be quite so heartless, pierced himself with one of his own arrows, fell in love with Psyche, shot her as well, and then secreted her away on a mountainside, where she pined for love. Here, Eros secretly became her husband and would visit her each night in darkness, commanding her never to seek to know his true identity. Eventually, Psyche had to find out what he looked like, and she did. There is so much more to this tale, but eventually, Eros and Psyche found true happiness together and had a child whom they named Hedone (meaning ‘Pleasure’).
Eros and Psyche, as modelled in The Louvre
One more notable female: Pandora. There are so many variations to her story. Most of us know about Pandora’s box, but what was in the box, how it was opened, and whose box it was really, are just three of the fascinating mysteries surrounding this tale. You may be left with all the troubles in the world, or all the hope in the world. I suppose it depends on your circumstances and outlook on life. I commend this story to anyone who like to research conflicting storylines.
Pandora opening up her box of tricks
Now it's time for my favourite mythological story: the Minotaur. A hideous half-man, half-beast. Borne out of treachery and vengeance. Celebrated, revered, abhorred in art and museums across the globe, throughout time.
Minos, King of Crete, King of the Minoans, was presented with a stunningly handsome bull by Poseidon. Poseidon then told Minos to sacrifice the bull. Thinking this was a sad and pointless waste of a magnificent specimen, Minos sacrificed another, inferior bull instead. On hearing of this trickery, and somehow the gods always heard about these things, Poseidon cursed Pasiphae, wife of Minos, and condemned her to a life of being in love with the handsome bull.
Pasiphae - smitten by a beast
So deeply in love was she that Pasiphae commissioned Daedalus to construct a wooden model of a bull, into which she fitted perfectly. This allowed her to copulate at will with the bull, and she quickly became pregnant. The product of this fusion was a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. This hybrid monster came to be known as the Minotaur. Because he was so scary, he way trapped in a labyrinth beneath the Palace of Knossos, again created by Daedalus.
The semi-mythical Palace of Knossos, partially restored by Arthur Evans
Daedalus was later imprisoned, where he set about his most notable and ultimately tragic achievement. He created two sets of wings made from cast-off feathers which he used with his son Icarus to fly out of the prison window. Icarus ignored his father’s warnings not to fly too near to the sun, the wax melted, and the boy splashed down into a watery grave in the sea.
Icarus failing to heed the advice of his father: too much in the sun
Back to the labyrinth. Every year, 7 young Athenian men and 7 young Athenian women were claimed and fed to the Minotaur to keep him from going on the rampage. This had to stop, and Theseus, mythical king of Athens, arrived to tackle the beast. Using string to record his passage through the labyrinth, Theseus tracked down the Minotaur, slaughtered him, and made his way out again back along the string. Sometimes, there is a happy ending of sorts.
Theseus and the Minotaur, as imagined by Edward Burne-Jones
There is now a very fine ceramic bull’s head taking pride of place in my display cabinet. Horns slightly menacing and truly ferocious in its day, but a happy reminder of a wonderful time in Crete.
Head of the Minotaur, as celebrated in the Archaeological Museum at Iraklio
This seems like a fitting place to end the stories. I marvel at the minds of the original story tellers. I also like to pick out themes, and here I have drawn out the following: divine power, mortal insignificance, male and female conflict, disobedience, secrecy, infidelity, bestiality, revenge and murder, but also romance and wonder. An ancient, imaginary world of love, magic, misbehaviour, and misrule.
Myths, certainly. But stories that have resonance today, and stories that will forever demand to be told. A great source of entertainment, with a few social messages that we might do well to reflect on in a modern context. It’s a fascinating challenge to imagine how the stories might be manifested or recreated today. But I really am not going to moralise or try to pin down the ethics of the mythology. The tales are fantastic, and boundless, and I feel compelled to allow them free rein.
Source : The Golden Age of Myth and Legend by Thomas Bulfinch
See Modern Day Olympic Challenges (Connected Cultures - Greece part 1)
See A Tour of Crete (Connected Cultures - Greece part 3)
© Eddie Hewitt 2016