Some of the most timeless stories in western literature are about the heroes of ancient Greece.
For millennia people have been inspired by Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Achilles and Odysseus. Many an ancient king and warrior has tried to emulate the actions and personae of these heroes, and even claimed descent from them.
Far and away, the greatest hero of all was Herakles.
There are so many stories related to Herakles (‘Hercules’ of you were Roman) in mythology that it’s impossible to cover all of them in a simple blog post. A book would be required for that.
So, this post is going to be the first in a two-part series on the hero. There are countless triumphant deeds associated with Herakles, but for our purposes here, I’m going to cover the most famous of all – The Twelve Labours.
The Twelve Labours of Herakles have been the subject of art, sculpture and song for ages. Their portrayal decorated the ancient world from the images on vases to the metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In our modern age, we’ve seen him in comics, television shows, and movies.
But who was Herakles? Where did he come from?
Herakles was born in the city of Thebes. He was the son of Zeus who begat him on Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Zeus came to her in the guise of her mortal husband, Amphitryon, and so Herakles was born.
From the beginning, Herakles showed that he was not a ‘normal’ person. Out of jealousy, Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, sent two snakes to kill the baby Herakles in his cot. Herakles strangled the snakes with his bare baby hands.
When he was 18 years of age, Herakles began to really make a name for himself by slaying a lion on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron after hunting it for fifty days. During that time, he stayed with the king of Thespiae who was so impressed with the youth that he had him beget children on all fifty of his daughters.
Herakles was a man of extreme prowess, deeds, emotion and appetites.
King Creon of Thebes rewarded Herakles for helping him against his enemy, Erginus, king of the Minyans by giving him the hand of his daughter Megara, with whom the hero had several children.
This is where things sour for the young hero. After all, this is a Greek story, and tragedy is never far behind to bring even the mightiest of heroes back to Earth.
Hera stepped in to afflict Herakles with madness, causing him to kill his wife and children. When his sanity returned, he was overcome with grief and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice.
The Oracle told him to go to Tyrins and serve its king, Eurystheus, for twelve years, as punishment for his brutal crime. He had to complete all tasks set for him by the king, and this is the origin of The Twelve Labours.
It’s curious that the name ‘Herakles’ means ‘Glory of Hera’, since she persecuted him so much throughout his life. Then again, perhaps as Hera is the root cause of his Labours, his triumphs reflect on her?
I – The Nemean Lion
This first labour is probably his most famous, and takes us to the ancient land of the Argolid peninsula. The lion that was terrorizing the hills about Nemea had skin that was impenetrable to weapons and so Herakles, when he faced it, choked it to death with his brute strength and then used the claws to skin it. It’s this skin, which he used as a hooded cloak, that the hero became known for in art. If you see someone with a lion’s head on their own, it’s likely Herakles, or someone trying to emulate him.
As a side note, Nemea was thereafter the site of the Nemean Games, one of the four sacred games of the ancient world, which also included the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games, and the Olympic Games. You can read more about ancient Nemea by CLICKING HERE.
II – The Lernean Hydra
When he faced the Hydra in the Peloponnesian swamps of Lerna, it’s a good thing that Herakles brought along his nephew and companion, Iolaus. Facing the monster, he discovered that when he cut one head off, two more grew back in its place. And so, after each head was cut, Iolaus would cauterize the stump before it could grow again. When the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the blood which was poison, even to Immortals. These arrows would come in useful in later episodes of the hero’s life.
III – The Ceryneian Hind
Eurystheus, this time, thought he would set Herakles against Artemis with this third labour by telling him to capture a deer with golden horns that was sacred to the goddess. But Herakles pursued the hind for a whole year until he finally captured it and brought it before Eurystheus who, by this time, was always hiding in a jar whenever his cousin would return. The hind was allowed to go once it was brought before the king and so Herakles was able to avoid Artemis’ wrath.
IV – The Erymanthian Boar
Around Psophis, in the Arcadian region of the Peloponnese, a massive boar had been giving the locals trouble and so Herakles was sent to capture it. He did so by pursuing it through deep snow in the mountains until it was so exhausted that he was able to capture it. Such a massive specimen would have made quite a sacrificial feast!
V – The Stables of Augeas
Augeas was the King of Elis, and he had a cattle stable that had never been mucked out, EVER! In this case, it was not a monster that terrorized the locals, but rather the monumental stench. In this very different labour, Herakles was told he had to clean out the stables. So, what did he do? What all heroes would do, he diverted the rivers Alpheius and Peneius so that they flowed through the stables and washed the titanic stink away. It’s no wonder the land thereabouts is so fertile!
VI – The Stymphalian Birds
In Stymphalia, there were flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks that infested the woods around the Lake of Stymphalus, again in Arcadia. Herakles was told he had to get them out. So, he scared them all from their hiding places and then shot them down with his great bow. No more birds.
VII – The Cretan Bull
For his seventh labour, Herakles had to leave the Peloponnese for the Island of Crete to capture and bring back the Cretan Bull. This was no ordinary bull. This was the bull that Poseidon sent to Crete for King Minos to sacrifice. When Minos refused, Poseidon made his wife, Pasiphae fall in love with it and from that union was born the terror that was to become the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull rampaged all over Crete until Herakles arrived, wrestled it to the ground, and brought it back to Greece. The hero’s friend, Theseus, would come back to Crete years later to take care of the Minotaur.
VIII – The Mares of Diomedes
Once more, Herakles was forced to deal with another group of man-eating animals. But this time they were not birds, but rather horses! The mares of Diomedes were in Thrace.
When Herakles arrived in that northern kingdom, he had a run-in with Diomedes himself and so, to tame the horses, Herakles fed them their own master. After that, the mares followed him back to Eurystheus.
IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte
Near the River Thermodon, just off the Black Sea, Herakles and his followers, including Theseus, went to the Amazons and their Queen, Hippolyte. The story goes that Herakles just asked this lovely daughter of Ares for her girdle, or belt, and she said ‘Yes’. Hera decided to step in and whispered to the rest of the Amazons that their queen was being abducted.
The Amazons attacked Herakles and his men who fought back, and in the bloody engagement, Hippolyte herself was killed. Herakles managed to get the girdle, but the cost of this labour was indeed heavy.
X – The Cattle of Geryon
The tenth labour is a sort of epic cattle raid. Herakles was told he had to bring back the red cattle of the three-bodied giant, Geryon, from the Island of Erytheia which was far, far to the west. This took the hero on a long journey into the Atlantic. On his way, he set up the Pillars of Hercules to mark his way.
But Herakles began to grow weary with the heat, and so Helios, God of the Sun, lent Herakles his great golden bowl or boat so that he could sail the rest of the way to Erytheia. Herakles succeeded in raiding the cattle and sailed in Helios’ boat back to Spain. From Spain he travelled to Greece and had many adventures on this mythic cattle drive.
There is a whole list of adventures he had on his way home, but the one I would like to highlight brings him in touch with the Romans. When Herakles arrived in Rome he came into conflict with a monster named Cacus after the beast killed some of the cattle. Herakles killed Cacus in what must have been a great battle of strength.
It’s interesting that in Rome, there are some steps leading off of the Palatine Hill called the Steps of Cacus which is where the monster is said to have lain in wait for passers-by. In the Forum Boarium, or cattle market, near the banks of the Tiber, there is a round Tholos temple dedicated to Hercules, commemorating the hero’s time in Rome.
XI – The Golden Apples of Hesperides
Hesperia was the garden of the gods, and Herakles must have been exhausted when he discovered that he had to go back to the Atlantic. Some believe Hesperia was located on the Atlantic side of the North African coast. The garden was said to be beyond the sunset, where Atlas, the Titan, was holding up the sky.
The labour was to pick the golden apples that were guarded by a giant snake. In some stories, Herakles asks Atlas to pick the apples for him while he holds the heavens in his stead. In others, Herakles picks the apples himself and kills the serpent.
XII – Cerberus
There is one archetype that is common to most hero stories, and that is the journey to the Underworld. And this is where Herakles must go in his final labour, to bring the three-headed hound of Hades back to Eurystheus.
To get to the Underworld, Herakles gets help from the god Hermes, who travelled there regularly. Supposedly, they entered through the gate at Taenarum, in the southern Peloponnese.
There is a fascinating episode when they arrive in Hades’ realm. The shades of the dead flee from Herakles who wounds Hades himself with one of his poison arrows. The only shades who do not flee are Meleager, famed for bringing down the great Calydonian Boar, and Medusa, the Gorgon slain by Perseus.
Herakles drew his sword against Medusa, but Hermes told him to leave her be. But Meleager told the hero his sad tale. Herakles, inspired by Meleager, said that he would marry the sister of such a noble man. And so, the shade of Meleager named his sister, Deianaira, to be Herakles’ wife. This at the end of his long penance for killing his family. Was it a new beginning?
Hades told Herakles that he could take Cerberus if he could bring him to heel without using his weapons. In true Heraclean fashion, he wrestled the hell hound and then brought it to Eurystheus.
Afterward, Hades got his dog back.
The Labours of Herakles are not just adventure stories. They are stories of atonement, of courage, of strength of mind and body. Over and over, the hero is taken to extremes until he attains his final triumph, and his debt is paid.
But this is a Greek story. There is no celebration. For laurels dry out on the brow of even the greatest of heroes.
There is much more to Herakles’ story. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these tales.
Next week, in the second part of this series, we are going to be looking at the tragedy of Herakles.
Thank you for reading, and until then, stay Strong!
Greetings readers and history-lovers!
I’m pleased to welcome you to the very first post in this new blog series about the ancient Olympics and Eagles and Dragons Publishing’s newest book, Heart of Fire – A Novel of the Ancient Olympics.
Over the next ten weeks or so, we will be looking at all aspects of the Olympic Games from their foundation and religious ceremonies, to ancient athletics, individual sports, and the actual site of ancient Olympia as it relates to the Olympiad of 396 B.C. when Heart of Fire takes place.
In this first post, we are looking at the mythological beginnings of the Olympic Games as given in three traditions.
There are three myths related to the foundation of the Olympic Games, and the first begins with the war between the Gods and the Titans.
Ancient Olympia is dominated by an ancient hill known as the Hill of Kronos. Now, Kronos, a Titan, as we know, was the father of Zeus who, along with his siblings, waged war on Kronos and the Titans.
One of the legends associated with Olympia is that it was where Zeus wrestled with, and defeated, his titanic father. Some believe the games were established to commemorate that victory, and that the site at the base of the Hill of Kronos was where Zeus himself wrestled and defeated Kronos.
Another tradition around the Olympic Games is that they were founded by Herakles in thanks to his father, Zeus, for granting him victory in war.
The great epinikion poet, Pindar, speaks of this in his Olympian Ode #10:
With the help of a god, one man can sharpen another who is born for excellence, and encourage him to tremendous achievement. Without toil only a few have attained joy, a light of life above all labors. The laws of Zeus urge me to sing of that extraordinary contest-place which Heracles founded by the ancient tomb of Pelops with its six altars, after he killed Cteatus, the flawless son of Poseidon and Eurytus too, with a will to exact from the unwilling Augeas, strong and violent, the wages for his menial labor…
…But the brave son of Zeus gathered the entire army and all the spoils together in Pisa and measured out a sacred precinct for his supreme father. He enclosed the Altis all around and marked it off in the open, and he made the encircling area a resting-place for feasting, honoring the stream of the Alpheus along with the twelve ruling gods. And he called it the Hill of Cronus; it had been nameless before, while Oenomaus was king, and it was covered with wet snow. But in this rite of first birth the Fates stood close by, and the one who alone puts genuine truth to the test, Time. Time moved forward and told the clear and precise story, how Heracles divided the gifts of war and sacrificed the finest of them, and how he established the four years’ festival with the first Olympic Games and its victories.
We will hear more about the Theban poet, Pindar, later throughout this blog series. For now, this small part of the ode mentions several things we should note. There is reference to Pelops whose tumulus was located in the middle of the Olympic sanctuary and whose story is big part of Heart of Fire.
Pindar also references one of Herakles’ labours which was to clean out the stables of King Augeas. More importantly, Pindar paints us a picture of the Olympic sanctuary and the Altis, which was marked out by Herakles as a place for rest and feasting at the base of the Hill of Kronos, and where every four years the Olympic festival was held.
At the first Olympics begun by Herakles, it is said that the gods themselves competed, with Apollo defeating Hermes in a foot race, and also defeating Ares, the God of War, in boxing.
But there is another tradition about Herakles…a different Herakles.
There were two Herakles?
Apparently so. The second was not the son of Zeus and Alcmene. He was known as Daktylos Herakles and it seems that the tradition around this second Herakles could be even older.
In the age of Kronos, when Zeus was a baby, Kronos was devouring his children (that’s a whole other story!). To keep the baby Zeus safe, his mother Rhea gave her son into the care of five Daktyloi, daimones whose duty it was to protect Zeus in a cave on Mt. Ida in Crete. To drown out the cries of the baby, the danced wildly and clashed their spears and shields together so that Kronos would not find Zeus.
Supposely, Daktylos Herakles was the leader of the five Daktyloi, who established the Olympic Games in the age of Kronos (Cronus). One of the oldest Olympic events, as we shall see in a later post, was the hoplite race in armour, and this aligns with the use of spears and shields by the five Daktyloi who were often pictured as armoured youths.
Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, touches on the Daktyloi here:
As for the Olympic Games, the most learned antiquarians of Elis say that Kronos was the first king of heaven, and that in his honour a temple was built in Olympia by the man of that age, who were named the Golden Race. When Zeus was born, Rhea entrusted the guardianship of her son to the Daktyloi of Ida, who are the same as those called Kouretes (Curetes). They came from Kretan (Cretan) Ida–Herakles (Heracles), Paionaios (Paeonaeus), Epimedes, Iasios and Idas. Herakles being the eldest, matched his brothers, as a game, in a running-race, and crowned the winner with a branch of wild olive, of which they had such a copious supply that they slept on heaps of its leaves while still green. It is said to have been introduced into Greece by Herakles from the land of the Hyperboreans, men living beyond the home of Boreas . . . Herakles of Ida, therefore, has the reputation of being the first to have held, on the occasion I mentioned, the games, and to have called them Oympiakos (the Olympics). So he established the custom of holding them every fifth year, because he and his brothers were five in number.
Now some say that Zeus wrestled here with Kronos himself for the throne, while others say that he held the games in honour of his victory over Kronos. The record of victors include Apollon, who outran Hermes and beat Ares at boxing . . .
(Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 7. 6 – 10)
Over time, the association of Daktylos Herakles with the Games became merged with the more famous Herakles, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, whose Twelve Labours were illustrated on the frieze of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
So much for Daktylos Herakles.
There is a final myth associated with the foundation of the Olympic Games, and that is the legendary chariot race between Oinomaus, son of Ares, king of Pisa and father of Hippodameia, and the hero, Pelops, after whom the Peloponnese is named.
King Oinomaus was supposedly a cruel ‘wine-loving’ man and father who continuously slew all the suitors for his daughter Hippodameia’s hand in a chariot race from Olympia to Argos.
When Pelops, a prince from Lydia arrived to take up the challenge with the aid of some divine horses given him by Poseidon, Oinomaus’ reign of terror came to an end, and Pelops and Hippodameia were married.
Now I have really simplified the story here because we will look at it more closely in a later post. However, this particular foundation myth points to the Games as an event to commemorate Pelops’ victory.
In tandem with the Olympic Games, said to be established by Pelops in this instance, Hippodameia was said to have established the Games of Hera, the Heraia, in thanks to the goddess for granting the victory as well. You can read more about the Heraia HERE.
The chariot race was the marquee event at the Olympic Games, and central to the story of Heart of Fire, as is the tale of Pelops and Hippodameia.
There was much testament to this particular foundation myth around the Altis of Olympia as well. One of the pediments from the temple of Zeus shows Oinomaus and Pelops with their chariots, on either side of Zeus, getting ready to race.
Also, in the hippodrome, the chariot racing track of Olympia, a statue of Hippodameia overlooked the track, one of the turns called the Taraxippos, was said to be haunted by the angry ghost of Oinomaus, and one of the posts in the turns was said to be made from a beam from Oinomaus’ burnt house.
In the middle of the Altis there was also the Pelopion, the burial mound of Pelops which became a shrine to the hero who would become the father of Atreus, and grandfather of Agamemnon and Menelaus, those well-known kings of Mycenae and Sparta.
I know this is a lot of information to take in, but it just goes to show the complexity and richness of the traditions attached to Olympia and the mythological foundation of the Olympic Games.
As we explore this ancient event, we will be travelling through a world where myth, religion, history and sport are all melded together to give us one of the greatest legacies passed down to us from Ancient Greece.
I hope you will join me next week for Part II of The World of Heart of Fire.
Thank you for reading.
This week, I wanted to leave behind the sad and depressing subject of the destruction of heritage to write about a site steeped in myth and legend – Tiryns.
“In the south-eastern corner of the plain of Argos, on the west and lowest and flattest of those rocky heights which here form a group, and rise like islands from the marshy plain, at a distance of 8 stadia, or about 1500 m. from the Gulf of Argos, lay the prehistoric citadel of Tiryns, now called Palaeocastron.” (Heinrich Schliemann; Tiryns; 1885)
I visited the site with family during the summer of 2002. It was a scorcher of a day and the cicadas were whirring full force by 9 a.m. Luckily, the heat meant that the place was devoid of visitors – the perfect time to explore.
Tiryns is one of those sites that you likely know about if you’ve studied classics, mythology or archaeology. Most people haven’t heard about it. It lies in the broad Argive plain, a fenced-in circuit wall along the road between Nafplio and Argos itself, surrounded by orange and olive groves.
At first glance, there is no hint that Tiryns was one of the major Mycenaean power centres of the Bronze Age. The cyclopean walls are big, impressive, but there have been times when I drove by and didn’t even notice it. Perhaps that was due to the madness of driving in Greece.
When we got out of the car, the hot wind whipped across the plain to envelope us and, once we paid our entrance fee at the small kiosk, it seemed to sweep us up the ramp to the citadel, and back in time.
Tiryns is a place of myth and legend. It’s been inhabited since the 7th millennium B.C., but by the Hellenistic and Roman periods, it was already in the death throes of a swift decline. Pausanius visited as a tourist in the 2nd century A.D.
“Going on from here [from Argos to Epidauros] and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns… The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together.” (Pausanias; Description of Greece)
I’ve spoken before about the feel of a place of great antiquity. Tiryns is a truly ancient place.
In mythology, it was founded by Proitos, the brother of Akrisios, King of Argos and father of Danae, the mother of Perseus.
It was said that the walls of Tiryns were built by the Thracian Cyclopes of the ‘bellyhands’ clan before they built the walls of Mycenae and Argos. This is why this style is called ‘cyclopean walls’. They were known as the ‘bellyhands’ because that clan of the Cyclopes were said to have made their living through manual labour.
It would have been a feat of tremendous strength to say the least, as each stone weighs several tons.
The association with Perseus is indirect as he acquired Tiryns after he killed his grandfather, Akrisios, but before he established Mycenae.
One of the most important mythological associations with Tiryns, however, is with Herakles, son of Zeus and Alkmene. The latter was the granddaughter of Perseus.
Let us go back to the time when Eurystheus was king of Mycenae, Tiryns and Argos (Note: Eurystheus was not a king of Athens, as portrayed in the recent film, Hercules.)
According to Apollodorus:
“Now it came to pass that after the battle with the Minyans Hercules was driven mad through the jealousy of Hera and flung his own children, whom he had by Megara, and two children of Iphicles into the fire; wherefore he condemned himself to exile, and was purified by Thespius, and repairing to Delphi he inquired of the god where he should dwell. The Pythian priestess then first called him Hercules, for hitherto he was called Alcides. And she told him to dwell in Tiryns, serving Eurystheus for twelve years and to perform the ten labours imposed on him, and so, she said, when the tasks were accomplished, he would be immortal.”(Apollodorus; Book II)
After Hera drove Herakles mad, causing him to kill his own children, the Oracle at Delphi told the hero that he needed to serve King Eurystheus to atone for his horrible actions.
Herakles settled in Tiryns. His twelve tasks, or Labours, for Eurystheus are legendary and have been depicted in art for centuries throughout the ancient world. You can read a previous post about the triumphs of Herakles HERE.
Admittedly, when I visited Tiryns I had no idea of its associations with Perseus or Herakles. For me, a lot of research is sparked after visiting a site, and as a result, a follow-up visit is certainly in order.
The citadel of Tiryns is about 28 metres high, 280 meters long, and it was built in three stages. In the 12th century B.C. it was destroyed by earthquake and fire but remained an important centre until the 7th century B.C. when it was a cult centre for the worship of Hera, Athena, and Herakles.
The Late Bronze Age (1600-1050 B.C.) was the height of Tiryns’ existence. It’s during this time that the cyclopean walls and most of the fortifications were built.
Today, as in the Bronze Age, one approaches the citadel on the east side. To get to the upper citadel, which was the location of the great megaron and palace, you must walk up a massive ramp that is 47 metres long and 4.70 metres wide. This would have led to the main wooden gates.
Once past the gates, you walk along what was a corridor that led to the Great Gate which was flanked by a tall tower. The Great Gate was almost the size of the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, and would have proved an imposing structure.
When I was walking along the ramp, looking up at the remains of the massive walls and the tower, I could imagine warriors in bronze, with boar’s tusk helmets, looking down on me, with spears or bows in hand.
Even though the citadel contained a luxurious palace and baths, this would not have been an easy fortress to storm.
Once you attain the top, you find yourself on a level area looking out over the site – the upper, middle and lower citadels.
There is not much left in the way of intact walls when it comes to the palace but you can see the outlines of the many rooms, especially the courtyards and the great megaron where the King of Tiryns held court and had his throne on a raised platform overlooking the central hearth.
Imagine Herakles approaching Eurystheus to ask him what his next labour was to be, in this room. This was the heart of the palace. Other rooms would have included residences, a second megaron and even a bath, the floor of which is made up of a huge monolith.
I was a bit dazed, standing there in the heat, looking on the remains of this site with awe. It’s so very old and the ruins only hint at what was a luxurious, but defensible, palace. And that was just the upper citadel.
The middle citadel, 2 m lower, provided access to the defences and may even have contained a pottery kiln. The lower citadel, which is also surrounded by walls, may have been used as a refuge for the people of Tiryns town on the west side, in times of need.
At one point, when I was looking about the gravelly surface of the court, I spotted tiny bits of pottery. Of course, I bent down to get a closer look and picked up a shard with three black lines painted across it. Before I could contemplate the age of this piece, a loud whistle blew and a site person seemingly emerged from the rocks like an asp hiding from the midday sun. “No touching!” I heard, in heavily accented English.
Good thing she didn’t have a spear or bow.
After leaving the upper citadel, we walked down some steps to what is my favourite part of the site – the east galaria.
This beautiful arched tunnel is still intact, and with the sun shining from above, it was suffused with soft light. I immediately imagined a Mycenaean queen strolling between the light and shadow of this place, or a determined king on his way to a war council, his cloak flapping behind him, bronze-clad guards in his wake.
Such is the power of a site like this to fire the imagination.
Back to the present.
It’s funny, but whenever I find myself fed up with cold winter days where I live, I think back to that scorched but brilliant day at Tiryns, and smile. I feel warmth again. I enjoy the glint of the sun radiating off of the stone, and its sparkle far out in the Gulf of Argos.
This ancient citadel is a welcoming place where history and myth are entwined, comfortable allies. I certainly hope my path leads me there again one day soon.
Thank you for reading.
What is your favourite ancient site with mythological and legendary links?
Let us know in the comments below.
Today I have a special guest on the blog.
Luciana Cavallaro is the author of a series of mythological retellings from the perspectives of some fascinating women in Greek myth.
When I read her book, The Curse of Troy, I knew that I wanted to have her write a guest post for Writing the Past. Luciana has a wonderfully unique style, and she gives these accursed women of Greek myth a voice that you may not have heard before.
So, without further ado, a big welcome to author, Luciana Cavallaro!
First, I’d like to thank Adam for inviting me to be a guest blogger. I’ve been following Adam’s blog for years now and enjoy reading about the Roman history, expansion and legacy they’ve left behind and learning about King Arthur and Medieval England. The latter is not one of my strongest or favourite periods of history, but I do enjoy reading Adam’s articles. I also want to apologise to Adam. He asked me last year to be a guest blogger and at the time I was finishing up my book and then time got away from me.
Let’s get into it
I’m a bit of a fan of mythology, in particular Greek myth, but I’m not an expert or purport to be one. I love the stories, learned a great deal from them and continue to do so. What I particularly enjoy are the links between the myths and historical fact.
Before I get into that, let’s address what mythology is. Here’s a dictionary meaning:
Mythology is a body of myths, especially one associated with a particular culture, person, etc. (Collins Concise Dictionary, 1989)
I prefer Joseph Campbell’s explanation:
There is a mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you’re a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society.
(Interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, 1986)
Myths are cultural as is history. If one digs (pardon the pun) deep enough, there is a correlation between the story and fact. Let’s take Jason of the Argonauts and his search for the Golden Fleece. In the Republic of Georgia, once annexed by Russia, the fleece of a sheep was used to trap golden grains dug from the river, or placed in the river banks and used in the same way.
Here’s a great article on this: Legend of the Golden Fleece was REAL: Greek myth originated near the Black Sea where miners used sheepskin to filter gold from mountain streams, geologists claim
I also watched a documentary of an Australian photo journalist who was trying to find the cities Alexander the Great founded in the Middle East. He watched Afghan miners use this technique to find gold in the riverbeds 4000 years on.
The journey from Jason’s home of Iolkos (Thessaly) to Georgia some distance away was dangerous. It is possible the story of the skills and craftsmanship of the Colchians who developed smelting and casting metals for agriculture and making jewellery found their way to Greece. This was something the ancient Greeks wanted, and the gold.
Another is the great story of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, which is a famous tourist site, and I did get to see. It is massive just as Homer stated. The lofty walls the Greeks couldn’t penetrate are there, and what is left is tall and slopes inwards. Hittite texts confirmed the site of Ilios, which they called Wilusa and identified Alaksandu/Alexander as one of the city’s kings. Alexander was the Greeks’ name for Paris. The texts also mention an invading force from the west, Ahhiyawa, that closely resembles Homer’s name for the Greeks, Achaeans. What historians have concluded is Homer’s story is a collective memory of the various invasions on Troy over centuries and its eventual downfall.
The fact that the site of Troy exists, as does Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon, does give credence to the mythologies. But like all stories, you can’t let facts get in the way of telling a good tale.
I do believe the more we delve into the myths, the more facts we’ll find in history. As with the current series I’m writing on my blog Eternal Atlantis, on the Atlantis myth, I believe such a place did exist. Like Homer’s Iliad, the enduring legend of Atlantis is a conglomeration of memories and oral histories to explain the rise and fall of a mighty empire. Look through the timeline of history and you will find many periods of great empires and their demise, either through war or a natural disaster.
Myths, like all stories, have morals and a message to relate. One day, I hope we will be smarter and take heed of these so we don’t keep repeating these transgressions. In a hundred or thousand years to come, people will question our mythology. What mythology will we leave behind?
I’d love to know your thoughts on the veracity of myths in our history.
I’d like to thank Luciana for taking the time to write this fascinating post for us. I’m so jealous of her trip to Troy, a place which I have wanted to visit for a long time. Ah, someday…
Mythology is truly fascinating, and there is a lifetime and more of stories for us to enjoy and learn from.
If you enjoy mythology as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to check out Luciana’s book, Accursed Women, or pick up one of the many short stories she has out. She also has a new book entitled Search for the Golden Serpent which I’m looking forward to reading.
Also, be sure to sign up for her E-bulletin so that you can receive her very interesting blog posts to your e-mail. By signing up, you’ll receive The Curse of Troy for FREE!
I always look forward to reading her posts as they are a fantastic escape from the everyday. The blog series on Atlantis is titantic!
Please leave any questions or comments for Luciana in the comments below, and, once again, thank you for reading…
Well, I’ve done it! I’ve gone and posted my first foray into video book readings. If you watched the video above, I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to share it around.
Yes, I know. I’m a bit awkward, and not entirely video-friendly (or is it that video is not friendly to me?). But, if I don’t try new things out, and take some risks, new adventures will remain out of reach. With time, I promise I’ll find my video groove.
Lest we forget, these stories were a part of an ancient oral tradition, and were meant to be spoken aloud. What would ‘the poet’ think of YouTube, I wonder?
Chariot of the Son was released on Amazon in December, but I thought I would post this video reading now because it just became available on Kobo and iTunes/iBooks.
If you haven’t got a copy, and your interest is piqued after reading the EXCERPT, be sure to head on over to one of the retailers to grab a copy. This is a story that can be enjoyed by anyone who likes Greek mythology, from young adults on up. The Percy Jackson crowd might enjoy this!
If you missed them last year, I posted some blogs about the Mythologia Series and on Retelling the Myths.
Chariot of the Son was a real joy to write, and I’m really excited to write more in the Mythologia series. After I finalize the three projects I’m working on now, I’ll get to work on the next in the series which I think will be a retelling of the story of Bellerophon and the Chimera. How does that sound?
In the meantime, if you’ve read Chariot of the Son, I would really appreciate it if you posted an honest review at any one of the retailers mentioned, or on Goodreads, as reviews really do help others to find the book.
That’s all for this week.
I’ll be back soon with a ‘funny’ post about the lighter aspects of life in the Roman Empire.
Thank you for reading.
If there are other myths you would be interested in reading about, tell us in the comments below. We all have our favourites! Which are yours?
Today we have a very special guest on Writing the Past.
Effrosyni Moschoudi is a fellow author whose books have been making a big splash on the Amazon charts and on book review sites around the web.
I’ve read her book, The Necklace of the Goddess Athena, and it is a wonderful book that is full of mystery, wonder, and goodness. Click HERE to read my review of it.
For a while I’ve wanted to have Effrosyni, a native of Athens, guest post here to talk about the ancient city and the bright-eyed goddess for whom it is named.
So, over to Effrosyni for a magical post…
GODDESS ATHENA AND HER SACRED TEMPLE, THE PARTHENON
A Guest post by Effrosyni Moschoudi
Goddess Athena was greatly revered by the ancient Greeks. One of her many epithets, Pallada (or Pallas), was owed to the peculiarity of her birth. According to legend, she sprang forth from the forehead of her father Zeus, fully armed and shaking her spear fiercely, making a fearsome sound. The word Pallada is derived from the Greek word ‘pallein’ which means ‘to shake’.
This divine young virgin was among other things, the goddess of wisdom and justice. Her sacred symbols include the owl and the olive tree. According to legend, she challenged Poseidon on the Athens Acropolis aiming to win the patronship of the city. The two Gods agreed to each offer a gift before king Cecrops and the witnessing Athenians; the better gift would grant the deity the greatly desired patronship status.
Poseidon went first, striking the Acropolis Rock with his trident to produce the Sea of Erechtheus; a salt spring. As the myth goes, the Athenians weren’t particularly impressed with this gift, as the water wasn’t fit to drink. Poseidon then offered a second gift, a horse, to be used for war. When Athena’s turn came, she struck the ground with her spear and an olive tree sprouted from it swiftly; a magnificent gift to be used for nourishment, beauty and light in the dark. King Cecrops and the people of Athens favored the gift of the olive tree and declared Athena the patron deity of the city that inevitably took on her name.
According to myth, Poseidon was enraged by this and stormed to western Attica, where he flooded the Thriasian Plain. His rivalry with Athena, even though she is his niece, is legendary in Greek mythology. Homer’s Odyssey illustrates it heavily, telling the world of this fearsome uncle and his cunning niece who fight over the fate of Odysseus. The cunning Greek king and his loyal crew roamed the sea for years, going through infamous trials and tribulations as they made their way back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Although Poseidon tried to lead Odysseus to his demise, furious with him for blinding his beloved son, The Cyclops Polyphemus, Athena kept going against his will assisting Odysseus out of difficult situations, until he made it safely home back to his palace and faithful wife, Penelope.
The Athenians loved their patron Goddess like no other deity. During the Golden Age of Athens (460-430 BC), under the leadership of Pericles, they built the Parthenon atop the Acropolis hill, along with other glorious edifices; all of them famous through history in their own right as well: The Propylaea, The Erechtheion and The Temple of Athena Nike.
Famous architects Iktinos and Kallikrates took over the construction and the legendary sculptor Phidias was commissioned to create the colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena for the interior of the Parthenon, which was named Athena Parthenos (Athena The Virgin). Phidias also sculpted the gigantic bronze statue Athena Promachos (Athena standing in the front line in battle). This statue was placed between The Parthenon and The Propylaea.
The word Parthenon is also derived from the word ‘parthenos’ which means ‘virgin’ as per the epithet ‘Virgin’ for Athena. Once in four years, the Panathinaia Festival took place in honor of the Goddess. Although it also involved athletic events similar to the Olympic Games, the main event was the religious procession that made its way from The Parthenon to the town of Elefsis via Iera Odos (The Sacred Way); today, Iera Odos survives as a busy motorway between Athens and the historical town of Elefsis (also spelled Eleusis in English). This historic town is also the very site of the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries of antiquity that to this day, historians know very little about.
Over the millennia, The Parthenon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, has suffered devastation repeatedly and on a large scale. Other than being occupied by the Turks and turned into a mosque in the 1460s, it was also bombed by the Venetians in 1687, cruelly looted by Lord Elgin in 1806 and has even suffered substantial damage by overzealous Christian priests who destroyed the depictions on the friezes that seemed indecent in their eyes.
In order to graphically illustrate the Parthenon back in its glory days as well as its demise through the millennia, I’m including below a remarkable video by the Greek Ministry of Culture. I hope you’ll also enjoy therein, a classic poem by the legendary philhellene, Lord Byron. The great romantic poet’s imagination has captured the wrath of Athena (Minerva, in Roman) further to the merciless destruction of her sacred temple. For the benefit of poetry lovers, I’m also including a link to the whole poem, written in Athens in 1811 by the great British poet.