Demeter

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Demeter’s Wanderings

Published December 24, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Okay, this one takes place during “Hades and Persephone.”  And, true to my short-sighted ways, it would work better if I’d taken it into account at the time I was writing the earlier version, because the real reason for the main part of the action here is that Demeter learns Zeus had given Persephone to Hades without telling her, and so she became enraged at the gods and wanted, in essence, to hang out with mortals instead.  But because I had her rush right down into the underworld on learning where Persephone had gone, I have to change this up a bit.  (If I ever compile these, that’s something I’ll have to fix in both myths.)


When her lovely daughter Persephone disappeared, Demeter began to walk the earth, searching for her beloved little girl.  But no matter where she went, no one had seen any trace of the child.

By the time a month had passed, Demeter began to despair of ever seeing Persephone’s smiling face again.  Finding herself in Eleusis, she sat down by a well and began to weep.

While she was sitting there crying, a maiden came up to the well for water.  On seeing the beautiful woman crying, she set down her pitcher, and tried to console the woman, patting her shoulder sympathetically.

“What’s wrong?” the girl asked.

“I’ve lost my daughter,” Demeter told her, “and now I don’t know what to do.”

“Oh, that’s so sad!  I’m so very sorry for your loss!” the girl exclaimed.  She had seen her infant brother die a few years back, so she knew what terrible grief it was to a mother to go through such losses.  And she knew that what a grieving mother needed was a new baby to distract her.  At least, that had worked for her mother, anyway.  “You should ask your husband to provide you with a new one,” the girl suggested.

Demeter shook her head.  “I have no husband,” she sobbed.

How awful, the girl thought.  This poor woman had lost both her baby and her husband?  “I wish there was something I could do to help,” the girl said sadly, “but I can’t stay long.  My sisters and I have to trade off taking care of our baby brother while our mother is ill.”

Demeter smiled up at the girl, her tears slowing.  “What a good girl you are,” she said.  “Let me help you with the baby.”

Any adult would have been leery of letting a madly grieving woman — who had so recently failed to keep her baby alive — have access to another person’s baby.  But this girl was still too young to have developed cynicism and mistrust, so she agreed readily, thinking that this would solve both problems:  it would cheer up the beautiful woman, and it would get the girl out of taking care of her squalling baby brother.

Gladly, then, the girl led Demeter back to her house, where she and her sisters were glad to turn over all care of the baby to this obliging stranger.  And Demeter quickly proved herself knowledgeable about both babies and running a household, so any worries the sisters might have had were quickly assuaged.

By the time Demeter had been in the house a whole day, she had become quite attached to the infant, a boy named Demophoon.  So that night, she decided to do him a wonderful favor:  she would make him immortal.

By day, she began to feed him on ambrosia, and by night she coated him in the stuff, then placed him in the hot embers at the edge of the hearth to burn away his mortality.  The baby cried and cried, for the procedure was very painful, but no one in the household heard him, and Demeter was able to quiet him down successfully as soon as he was out of the fire.

On the third night of this, tragedy struck:  the baby’s mother recovered from her illness.  While the mother was quite pleased to have someone else continue to take care of her child, once she was well, she was able to hear the baby crying at night, and she came to see what was the cause of his pain.

Seeing her baby in the hearth, the mother cried out in horror and terror.  She ran across the kitchen and snatched the baby out into the safety of her arms, then began to curse Demeter in such terrible language that it made the goddess sad to think of poor little Demophoon hearing it.

The mother’s outrage woke the whole household, and soon they were turning on Demeter, demanding that she be punished for trying to murder their baby.

This awoke the goddess’s anger, and she relaxed her mortal disguise, giving the fools a taste of just who they had angered.  Then, cursing them for their short-sightedness in trying to stop her from making their baby immortal, Demeter departed the house, and went out to the nearest fields.

One by one, she caused every plant to wither and die.  If these people didn’t want their son to live forever, then they didn’t deserve her bounties!

A few days later, Triptolemos, the father of the family appeared at Demeter’s shrine, and laid out a magnificent offering at the foot of her statue.  Demeter didn’t want an offering from him, but she couldn’t help listening to his prayer, none the less.

“Please, great goddess, forgive us for our foolish actions,” he pleaded.  “Even if you can’t forgive my wife and I, please don’t punish everyone around us.  If we must be punished, then strike us down, but don’t starve the innocent.  And don’t punish our innocent son.  We didn’t know you were trying to save him.  It looked like torture; we only wanted to protect him.  Don’t let him suffer for our mistake.”

The man wept as he pleaded with her, and Demeter’s heart softened.  She allowed the plants to grow again — as best they could, since nothing at all was growing much in Persephone’s absence — and spoke to him through her statue, telling him that if he proved his words by giving her daily offerings, then when his son learned to talk, she would speak to him through his son, and give him far greater knowledge of harvesting crops than any man yet knew, but only if he would swear to share that knowledge with all the other men of the world.

Relieved and honored, the man swore he would do as she asked, then went home again, to share the glad tidings with his family.

Many years later, after he had spread knowledge of cultivation all across the world, he and his family began to celebrate the cult of Demeter and Persephone (under her other name, Kore) that made Eleusis famous.


Yay, another lame ending!  Boy, if there were prizes for being unable to end a story properly…

Anyway, there are a lot of versions about Triptolemos.  Sometimes he’s immortal (or at least the son of an immortal or two), sometimes he’s baby Demeter’s trying to make immortal, and…well, let’s just leave it at “there are a lot of versions.”

I’ve loosely based this on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but mine is a pretty bare bones version, I’m sorry to say.   Things have been crazy around here…

 

 

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The War between the Gods and the Titans

Published May 7, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I was going to call the post “Titanomachy,” but I worried that people wouldn’t know what that meant and thus wouldn’t read it.

Anyway, keeping my word and following up on the defeat of Kronos with the defeat of his brothers.  (Oops, guess I shoulda put a spoiler warning on my intro!)  But I’ve had to make up most of it, on account of no surviving ancient texts that give any freakin’ details.  (The question is, why?  Were there–uh, wait, I’ll make a separate post about this later.)


Once all six of the gods had grown to full maturity, thanks to the ambrosia that Zeus shared with his elder siblings, they decided they needed a home; they couldn’t keep living in a cave on Crete, after all!  Their father had set up his court on the heights of Mt. Orthrys, so their first thought was to go and occupy his palace.

But as they approached Mt. Orthrys, they could see fires burning within the palace, and they could hear the angry mutterings of their uncles.  Looking around, Zeus could see another, taller mountain to the north.

“Let’s make our home on top of that one,” he suggested, and the six brothers and sisters set off towards that northern mountain, Olympos.  By the time they arrived, they found that their uncles the Cyclopes were already there, building them a fabulous palace atop the mountain’s peak.

“Mother heard your plan,” Brontes explained, “and she didn’t want her grandchildren living unprotected.”

“These walls will keep out all but the strongest of intruders,” Steropes added.

“Aren’t you supposed to be making our weapons and armor?” Zeus asked.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t grateful to have a home already made for him, but it wouldn’t do much good if he didn’t have anything to protect him from the weapons of his uncles.

“The armor is ready,” Arges answered, “but the weapons aren’t quite finished yet.  Don’t go picking any fights until they are!”

The gods agreed readily, and moved into their new palace on Mt. Olympos.

That night, as the new gods and goddesses settled in, picking rooms for themselves, the gods began to realize the same thing that boys of a certain age realize:  just what girls are for.  Zeus couldn’t bring himself to leave his sisters alone for a moment, and Poseidon wasn’t much more calm.  Hades, on the other hand, was more concerned with the battle to come.  He wanted to know just what would happen if they fell prey to the weapons of their uncles.

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Z is for Zeus

Published April 30, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, of course it is!  I mean, there are other Z-names, like Zephyros and Zagreus, but it’s Thursday, and there aren’t really any good myths to tell for Zephyros, and Zagreus is…um…weird.  He’s part of a (very) alternate version of a few myths, a version that sprang up in the Orphic cults.  But since it’s myth re-telling day, and my head cannot wrap around Zagreus enough to re-tell that tale, it had to be Zeus.

And since I did Ouranos earlier, today I’m telling the next part of the tale, with Zeus vs. Kronos.  (Um…eventually…)


Though Gaia was pleased to see her sons released from her womb, she did not remain so pleased for long.  Kronos was no more fond of the ugly appearance of his brothers the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handed Giants than his father had been.  He found the place beneath Gaia’s surface where the terrible Tartaros existed, and flung them deep within it, locking them in with one of the Cyclopes’ own creations.  Then Kronos declared himself ruler of all things, and commanded that all beings lesser than Titans must bow down before him.

Gaia begged him to release his brothers, but Kronos wouldn’t listen to her.  She begged the other Titans to speak to their brother on behalf of the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handers, but they would not; most agreed with him, and the few who did not agree feared his wrath.

Kronos decided that it was time for him to have a wife, and he chose his sister Rheia, thinking her the prettiest and wisest, sure to give him the best children.  Most of his brother Titans also married their sisters, and they were all quite productive.

But when Rheia was bearing their first child, Ouranos looked down on the happy couple and laughed.  “You will meet your fate the same way I did, boy,” he proclaimed.  “You will be toppled by one of your children, just as I was.”

Kronos laughed at his father’s words at the time.  But the longer he thought on them, the more they worried him.  What if it was true?  What if his child was going to turn on him?  What would be the point of ruling over all the lesser beings if his rule was going to be so short?  No, that would not do!

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T is for Tantalos

Published April 23, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Ack, it’s 8:20 and I’m only just starting today’s post…and it’s Thursday, myth day!  (The whole myths on Thursdays was supposed to let me write ’em in advance and make this easier, not harder…though I didn’t actually have class today anyway, but…)  Okay, gotta jump right in and hope to finish in time to take my much-needed bath!


Some sons of Zeus were better than others.  Some were gods themselves, some became mighty heroes, saving those in peril, or at least fighting terrible foes for their own personal gain.  But sometimes he had a son like Tantalos…

Zeus had an affair with a Titaness named Pluto, and fathered Tantalos on her.  As his mother’s name implied, Tantalos was born into fabulous wealth, and he ruled all of Lydia from his seat on Mt. Sipylus.  But unlike his parents, Tantalos was not not immortal.

He married a daughter of the Titan Atlas, and they had three children:  Pelops, Niobe and Broteas.  Broteas was a scultor, and when he was grown, he carved an enormous statue of Cybele into the side of Mt. Sipylus.  Niobe married the King of Thebes, and met a very sad end there.  And as to Pelops, he would go on to great things, but only after he had caused his father’s downfall…

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K is for Kore

Published April 13, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Technically, I could use any name usually Romanized with a C, since there is no C in Greek, and the names therefore start with kappa, unless they start with “Ch” in which case they start with chi.  But I thought I’d go with Kore, one of the only ancient Greek names that is pretty much never spelled with a C in English.  (Well, they don’t want people confusing it with the English word “core,” right?)

So, Kore just means “maiden.”  It’s often used to describe a certain kind of statue from the Archaic Period.  But since I’m talking about mythology, I’m using it to mean Persephone.  Kore was, essentially, her cultic name, particularly in cults worshiping her in concert with her mother, Demeter.  (As opposed to those worshiping her in concert with her husband, Hades.  Those, to the best of my knowledge (which admittedly isn’t very much) never called her Kore.  Though much of the worship involving both Demeter and Persephone still had a strong focus on her abduction by Hades.)  So, in this case, Kore might more accurately be translated as “Daughter.”

The most famous cult worshiping Kore was the one at Eleusis, just outside of Athens.  Their Mysteries are still famous, and a subject of constant study.  Despite that we know almost nothing about them.

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Hades and Persephone

Published January 20, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The first installation in my narration of the few myths that strongly involve Hades.  I’m not sure why I ended up writing it in a children’s storybook style…particularly considering the whole incest thing.  (I really need to have a look at D’Aulaire’s and see how they glossed over the Olympian incest issue there.)


 

One day, Zeus went down into the darkness of the underworld to speak to his brother, Hades.  The gloom was so thick that by the time he reached the throne, Zeus already wanted to leave.  “You’re going to have mushrooms growing on your head if you don’t get out into the light once in a while,” he told his brother.

“Don’t be absurd,” Hades replied.  Surrounded all day long by the whining dead, he had little sense of humor.

“Or maybe you need a wife to keep you company, cheer you up.”

“Judging by your example, I wouldn’t think that was a wife’s primary duty,” Hades said, with the closest to a chuckle as he could muster.

“You know, I have a beautiful daughter in need of a husband,” Zeus commented.  “Persephone needs to get married before she can decide to emulate her sisters Athene and Artemis.  I don’t want three perpetually unwed daughters.”

“So?”

“Since she needs a husband and you need a wife…” Zeus prompted.

“I doubt that I am the husband my niece would choose,” Hades replied sourly.  “I’m sure she would prefer a younger, more lively god.  Someone more like Apollo.”

“He’ll never agree to take a wife,” Zeus laughed.  “No, it is my firm conviction that you and she are perfectly suited to each other.  You rule the soil itself, and all that is beneath it, and she makes things grow from that soil.  What could be more ideal than that?”

Hades nodded slowly.  “Perhaps so,” he admitted, “but I have never thought of taking a wife.”

“You don’t want her, then?”

Hades cleared his throat.  “I didn’t say that…”

“You do think her beautiful, then?” Zeus prompted.

“…of course.”

“Then what could your complaint be?”

“There is no complaint,” Hades explained.  “I simply cannot make such a momentous decision so lightly.”

“Of course,” Zeus agreed.  “I wouldn’t want you to make my mistake.  I’ll send her down to play in her favorite poppy fields, in one week’s time.  If you want to make her your wife, take her then.  If you don’t, then I’ll find her some other husband.”

Hades nodded his agreement, and Zeus quickly returned to the bright splendor of Mt. Olympos.  Although his brother had fully intended to refuse his niece’s hand, the longer Zeus was gone, the more Hades could not stop thinking about the offer.  He had often looked up through the soil and seen Persephone playing in the fields of brightly colored flowers, dancing and singing with nymphs.  Persephone had outshone the nymphs as much as the moon outshone the stars; she had been so bright that it almost hurt Hades’ eyes to look on her.  And yet he had still looked.  And after he knew that she could be his, he had looked all the more eagerly, watched her all the more intently.

By the time the week was up, he had decided to accept his brother’s offer.  Hades hitched up his horses to his chariot personally, and rode up to the surface, opening a crack in the earth so that he and his bride could ride away together in proper style.

The nymphs screamed and ran away at his arrival, which he found to be most rude indeed.  When he offered Persephone his hand, she just stared at it in confusion.

Irritated by the delay, and having no idea what the proper procedure was, Hades stepped off his chariot, lifted Persephone in his arms, and began to carry her back to the chariot.

To his surprise–and consternation–the girl began to scream, calling for her mother and father to come and save her.  Save her?  From what?  Did she find the notion of marriage that unappealing?  Hades hesitated for a moment, then set her in the chariot and urged the horses back down below.  It was just nerves, he was sure.  She was nervous, and panicking, even as mortal girls did on first meeting their husbands.  It would pass.  Of course it would pass.

But to his dismay, it didn’t pass.  Persephone gave up screaming after a while, and began instead to weep.  She wept and wept until it was starting to make even Hades’ eyes hurt.  He certainly didn’t want to hold their wedding celebration with her crying, so Hades asked her what was wrong, because he could find nothing else to ask.

“Please, let me go back to the surface,” Persephone said, looking up at him with her big eyes swollen and bloodshot.  “My mother will be worrying about me, and the flowers will miss me, and I’m too young to die!”

“How could you die?” Hades replied, altogether confused.  “Goddesses don’t die.”

“Then why have you brought me to the land of the dead, uncle?”

“Because this is where I reside,” he told her.  “Did you think husband and wife would not share one abode?”

“Husband and wife?” Persephone repeated.  “What do you mean?”

Hades stared at her for a moment, then scowled.  “He didn’t tell you.”  He shook his head.  “He didn’t tell you.  He must have seen some pretty mortal girl and forgotten all about me…”

“What didn’t my father tell me?”

“He promised me your hand in marriage,” Hades explained.  “To be granted today.”

“Marriage?!  But–no!  I won’t!  I won’t live in this terrible, dank, dreary place!  I won’t!”  Persephone didn’t wait for Hades to reply.  Instead, she ran away into the darkness.

Hades sighed.  He was tempted to follow her immediately, but decided it was better to wait.  Let her see just how dark his realm could be, so she would better appreciate the light in his home.  But when he approached her the next day, she was still refusing him, and ran off again into the darkness.  The third day produced no different results.

In the mean time, up on the surface, Demeter was in a dreadful panic over her missing daughter.  But the terrified nymphs who had been Persephone’s playmates didn’t know who had taken her, as they had never seen Hades before.  Mournful and bewildered, Demeter began to roam all through the land, calling out for her lost daughter.  Ashamed that he had forgotten to tell his sister and their daughter about the planned marriage, Zeus took a sudden trip to the most distant lands he could find, far to the north, taking all his rain clouds with him.  Without Zeus’ rain clouds and Demeter’s cooling love, the land began to sizzle and scorch, and nothing would grow.

Persephone was no happier, wandering through the darkness, miserable and alone, but constantly refusing her uncle’s protestations of love and requests for a proper marriage.  She missed the warmth of the sun, the light of the moon, the feel of the grass beneath her feet, and the taste of sweet fruit in her mouth.  That was what she missed most of all, after a month had passed, and she began to feel very hungry, but there was nothing to eat in the underworld, as there was nothing outside Hades’ palace other than the swirling shades of dead mortals.

Hades, in desperation, had ordered the Hundred-Handed Giants and Cyclopes to plant him a garden that might attract Persephone’s attention, but the only thing they could make grow in it were a few malnourished pomegranate trees.  Still, he hoped it would show the girl how far he was willing to go for her, and as soon as the garden was ready, he led her by the hand and took her on a tour of it.  She was pleased to see something striving to live in that dark, dank region, but refused to smile, lest she encourage him, and thereby lose any chance of ever getting to go home again.

Once Hades had returned to his throne in defeat, Persephone set her hand on the trunk of one of the pomegranate trees, and spoke words of gentle love to it.  The tree grew and grew, spouting leaves, flowers and fruit all at once.  After she had thus encouraged all the trees, Persephone found the garden quite pleasant indeed, though she still wanted to see the sky, and once more wave at the horses pulling Helios’ chariot.

The longer she spent in that garden, though, the more Persephone’s hunger began to gnaw at her.  It had been so long since she had eaten, and the pomegranates looked so tempting and tasty, hanging upon their branches…but she had to stay strong!  If she ate anything, then she would no longer be able to call herself a prisoner, and would be acknowledging herself as a guest instead.  That was the first step towards giving up her maiden status and becoming a wife, and that was completely unacceptable!

After that, Hades came to speak to Persephone in the garden every day.  He always began and ended their conversations by asking her to give in and be his wife as her father had promised, but since she was no longer running away from him, he had to find other things to say to her as well.  He didn’t know what to say, so he would tell her about his work.  He would tell her what mortals had died that day, who they were, how their loved ones had mourned them, or how they hadn’t, and how their souls had accepted their new existence, whether with decorum or with tears or attempts to bribe their way into a better life.  Persephone found it amusing that some mortals thought they could tempt the god who controlled the gold within the soil by offering him his own gold back again, but she always wept to hear of lamenting widows, or mourning parents bereaved of their children.  She could never have admitted it, but she began to look forward to his daily visit.

Eventually, the land above became so dry and desolate that Helios began to feel sorry for the mortals who could no longer make their crops grow.  He landed his chariot near Demeter, and told her where she could find Persephone.  Demeter was so grateful to learn where her precious daughter was that she couldn’t summon up any words of thanks, and could only hug Helios briefly before hurrying down through a cave to reach her brother’s throne room, where she demanded the return of her daughter.

Persephone was overjoyed to see her mother again, and lavished hugs and kisses upon her.  But Hades wasn’t willing to give up his bride.

“Zeus promised her to me,” he reminded his sister, “to be my wife.  Are you going to disobey his commands?”

“He made no mention of that to me,” Demeter countered angrily, “and I have just as much right to choose my daughter’s husband and he does, even though he is the king of the gods!”

“Among the mortals–” Hades started, but was allowed to go no further than that.

“I don’t care what the mortals do!” Demeter snapped at him.  “We are goddesses; we have our own rules, and don’t have to obey the rules imposed on mortal women!”

“Be reasonable.  It is cruel to stand in the way of love,” Hades tried to reason with her.

“What love?” Demeter countered.  “This is abduction and imprisonment!  She doesn’t care for you one bit, no matter what you claim to feel for her!  She’s been miserable the whole time she’s been down here!”

“Those are your feelings, not hers,” Hades said.  “If that is truly how Persephone feels, then I will accept it.  But she must swear on the River Styx that she has felt herself only a prisoner, and never once at home.”  He gestured towards the Briareos, the Hundred-Handed Giant he trusted most.  The giant presented him with a chalice filled with the waters of the Styx.  An oath over those waters was so powerful that not even Zeus himself would dare break it.

Persephone stared at the chalice with fearful eyes, and shook her head.  “I shouldn’t have to do that!” she exclaimed.  “I just want to go home!”

“Then go ahead and take the oath,” her mother prompted her.

Persephone bit her lip, and shook her head again, and wouldn’t take the chalice.  Demeter tried and tried to cajole her into taking the oath, but the girl was intransigent.

“Then you admit that you’ve begun to feel at home here?” Hades asked hopefully.  He had a secret that had been revealed to him by Briareos, but he didn’t want to have to use it…

“No!” Persephone shrieked.  “I want to go back up to the surface, into the light of the sun!”

Hades frowned, and picked up the dish beside his throne.  He showed it to his sister and her daughter.  Persephone blanched at the sight.  “This is one of the pomegranates from my garden,” he explained to Demeter.  “It had been hidden at the base of one of the trees.”

“So?” Demeter asked coldly.

“Three of the seeds within have been eaten,” Hades told her, showing the spot where the fruit had been opened, and the seeds removed.

“Anyone could have eaten them,” Demeter insisted.

“No one is allowed into my garden other than myself, Persephone, and Briareos,” Hades said, “and neither he nor I have tasted this fruit.  We will swear to it if you like?”

Demeter looked at Persephone uncertainly, and the girl began to cry.  “But I was hungry!” she wailed.

“You’re a goddess; you don’t need to eat!” Demeter objected.

“Taking and eating food without telling anyone is not the action of a guest,” Hades went on.  “It is either that of a thief, or of a person in their own home.”

“Just what do you want?” Demeter asked.

“I want a wife.”

“I will never allow it!” Demeter shouted.  “I won’t let my daughter live down here away from the light!  I’ll never allow so much as a single blade of grass to grow on the land above if my daughter is forced to live in this darkness!  Do you want to be overrun by the shades of all the mortals on earth all at once?”

“Mother, that’s awfully cruel,” Persephone pointed out.  “You shouldn’t punish the mortals.  They didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Persephone, just keep quiet and let Mother handle this.”

Demeter’s instruction made Persephone sigh sadly, but she didn’t think it wise to argue back, not while her mother was in such a foul temper already.  The argument between Demeter and Hades resumed and quickly escalated.  Demeter screamed and bellowed and uttered terrifying curses and threats, shocking her daughter terribly.  Hades remained calm, but his voice carried the fury of hundreds of generations of fallen warriors.

The argument might have gone on for all of time, if Helios had not informed Zeus of what was going on.  Zeus immediately returned to Hades’ throne room, and quieted his enraged sister.  After he had been told all the details, Zeus nodded.

“Then let us work out an arrangement that will suit everybody,” he said.  “Since she ate three seeds, Persephone must spend three months of the year with her husband, but she may spend the rest on the surface with her mother.  That is my decision, and there will be no further arguments.”

Not one of the gods was pleased with the arrangement–except Zeus himself–but they knew better than to argue with the king of the gods.

A wedding feast was quickly held, and Persephone accepted her new role as queen beneath the surface.

When it was time for her to return to her mother, up in the light, Persephone kissed her husband warmly, and promised to think of him while she was away.


Well, that was ridiculously long.  Sorry.  I had trouble finding a way to make the ending work.  No, let me rephrase that.  I had trouble finding a way to handle the ending, and since I couldn’t find one that worked, I had to go with this one.  Hopefully, I’ll come up with a better way in the future.  Also, I apologize for letting a little Beauty and the Beast sneak in there.  But…actually, when you think about it, there’s probably a correlation there; even if the versions actually being passed about by storytellers weren’t inspired by Hades and Persephone, I bet Perrault was.  (Or maybe not.  How would I know?)

 

The Truth about Zeus and Hades

Published January 19, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Today, I thought I would let loose a bit about one of the things that most irritates me about the way Greek myths and gods are treated in the modern age, especially by Hollywood.  In particular, I’m going to be talking about the way Hades is treated.  You know what I mean:  he’s often treated as being the equivalent of the Christian Devil, and his realm is treated as equal to Hell, with the Elysian Fields (or the Isles of the Blessed or the White Island) being the equal of Heaven.  None of this is the least bit accurate.

I’ll start with Hades himself.  As most people know, he was one of the six children of Kronos and Rhea, the other five being Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter and Hestia.  According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Hades was the eldest, and Zeus the youngest, but in the Iliad it’s stated that Zeus is the eldest brother, so traditions varied across Magna Graecia.  Following the defeat of Kronos and the Titans, the three brothers split the world between them; Zeus received the air and the sky, Poseidon the water, and Hades all that was below the earth’s surface.  While this did primarily mean the deep darkness filled with the souls of the dead, it also meant crops before they had sprouted, and metals and precious stones yet to be mined, leading to one of his Greek epithets, Ploutos or Plouton, “the Wealthy.”  (Whence his Roman name Pluto.)  There is no standard explanation of how the division was achieved; some sources say they drew lots, others that they chose by age, and others still that Zeus was awarded the chief position and rule over the skies as reward for being the one who threw down their tyrannical father.

One of his other names is “the chthonic Zeus,” that is “Zeus of the earth.”  It’s especially used by Hesiod, but similar names also crop up in Euripides, and Aeschylus also calls him “the other Zeus,” and “the earthly, the much-visited Zeus of the dead,” and “Zeus who is beneath the earth.”  This is perhaps the most indisputable reason I believe that Zeus and Hades were originally different aspects of the same god.  Such a combination is not unheard of; Osiris filled similar roles in Egypt, and there were many other gods who traveled from the underworld to the heavens regularly, throughout the beliefs in the region.  Now, keep in mind that this is largely only my opinion, and I refer mostly to very early times, Mycenaean or even pre-Mycenaean.  However, I came to this opinion based on good authority:  Timothy Gantz, in Early Greek Myth says “Thus it appears that at times Zeus and Hades represented simply different facets of a single extended divine power.”  (Pg 72, also the source of the Aeschylus quotes.)

One of the other reasons I think that is the connection between Hades and the fertility goddesses Demeter and Persephone, and their role in the growth of plants.  Zeus is often called the “cloud-gatherer” by the Greek poets, because in his role as a sky god, he was responsible for causing storms.  (Though by literary times, he seems to largely delegate that responsibility to lesser deities, but I think it’s safe to say that in earlier times, he still played the more traditional role of a storm god, and it was the higher post assigned to him in Mycenaean times that freed him of the more mundane tasks of that role.)  So plants could not grow without the aid of Zeus and his rain.  But they couldn’t grow without the fertile earth that was the realm of Hades, either, and there is surviving artwork depicting Hades assisting Demeter in making crops grow.  And on top of that, Hades is married to Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter.  (Eew, double uncle!)  Persephone’s role was to a large extent the same as her mother’s, and the two were usually worshipped together in ancient times, so Persephone may well be only an extension of Demeter, a new(er) goddess to go with the new(er) god.  (Again, that last part is purely my own speculation.)  For the most part, there is little to speak of the marital relations of Hades and Persephone, except that some later writers assigned Hades the same wandering lust that plagued his brothers and nephews…and made Persephone just as jealous a wife as her Aunt Hera.  And despite the famed allegory for the changing seasons of Persephone coming and going from the underworld, it may not always have been the case that she was such an inconstant wife:  the mentions of Persephone in the Odyssey make it sound as if she remains in her husband’s realm all year round.

A final connection between Hades and Zeus before I move on.  There aren’t many myths involving Hades apart from the tale of how he came to marry Persephone, but one of the few there are is that of Pirithoos and his mad desire for Persephone.  I’m going to go into detail on the myths themselves later (in other posts), so I won’t say too much now, except that it involved Pirithoos entering Hades’ home as a guest, though he intends to make off with his host’s wife.  This is a connection to Zeus for two reasons.  One, Zeus once had a mortal guest named Ixion who attempted to have his way with Hera…and in vengeance, Zeus went and got Ixion’s wife pregnant (in addition to sending Ixion down to Tartaros to suffer in eternity) with a son…who just happened to be that very same Pirithoos.  (I’d say “like father, like son” if Ixion was actually Pirithoos’ father, but since he wasn’t…)  Two, the bond between host and guest, called xenia or “guest-friendship,” was the special province of Zeus himself, allegedly having been invented by him.  (The actual practice dates at least back into the Late Bronze Age, and is known to have been in general practice all throughout the Aegean area.)

Now, as to the realm of the dead, it was nothing like the Christian afterlife.  Most dead people went to the same common darkness below the earth, which was not called Hades, despite the modern misconception.  It had no specific name, but was often referred to as “the house of Hades,” but as that was long and unwieldy, it was sometimes shortened, and the “house” part was implied, so that all that was actually written was “Hades” in the genitive case, hence the confusion in modern minds.  The afterlife was also sometimes called Erebos, or “darkness,” as in the Odyssey.  Of course, that’s the common afterlife, the one where all real people could expect to go.  (Unless they were members of a cult with another version of the afterlife, such as the Orphic cults, but that’s another matter entirely, and one that I have only a smidgen of knowledge about.)

There were two other types of afterlife.  For the most evil and wicked, there was Tartaros.  The realm where the Titans were kept imprisoned, where they themselves had previously imprisoned the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handed Giants.  For the most part, the only mortals said to have been sent to Tartaros were those who had committed crimes against the gods themselves, as Ixion had.  (There are also the Danaids, but…I chalk that up to extreme misogyny on someone’s part.  Particularly when you consider that the women of Lemnos suffered no penalty for slaughtering their husbands.)  No matter how terribly a real person behaved, it was unlikely to match up to, for example, Tantalos killing his own son and serving the corpse to the gods at a feast, or trying to steal ambrosia from Olympos, so you don’t see much in the way of real people being said to have fallen into Tartaros upon their deaths.  It isn’t entirely clear if Tartaros is under Hades’ rule, or the rule of some other god, or perhaps all of them; different regions probably had different traditions in that regard, most of which never made it into any surviving writing.

For the greatest and finest heroes, there were better afterlives.  I use the plural because there are three different versions.  The Elysian Fields of Homer and the Isles of the Blessed of Hesiod were probably the same paradisaical afterlife, merely given a different name due to the different local traditions.  The third, the White Island, was very different, and yet also somewhat the same.  Like the other two, it was an afterlife only for the greatest heroes, a place where real people could never hope to spend their eternity.  Unlike the other two, it was also a real place.  It was an island off the coast of Scythia, ruled over by Achilles after his death, and there was a temple built in his honor on the island.  (Though only men were allowed to go there to offer sacrifices in his honor.)  Other than Achilles, Patroclos, Aias and Antilochos, I don’t know off-hand of any heroes specifically said to have gone to the White Island rather than the Elysian Fields and/or the Isles of the Blessed.  (Iphigenia was said to have been Achilles’ wife there, though.)  The Elysian Fields/Isles of the Blessed may have been under the control of Hades, Aiakos or Rhadamanthys; as with Tartaros, there isn’t much information in surviving sources, and even what information there should be assumed to be only a fraction of the beliefs that once existed.

A Christian-like concept of the afterlife can be found described in some ancient Greek writings, however, which has probably led to some of the irritating misconceptions of the modern age.  I came across one such description in the mouth of Nestor in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica, which I thought was the Christian influence on Quintus, but according to the translator’s notes on the new(ish) translation, it isn’t.  Quintus was echoing Plato’s Republic, and given what I know of Socrates’ and Aristotle’s beliefs, that does make perfect sense.  However, that Christian-like afterlife was utterly without the presence of the traditional Greek gods, or at least without their strong presence.  (That was, after all, the excuse used by the Athenians to put Socrates to death, saying that he taught the worship of gods other than those of Athens.)  So while the Platonic concept of the afterlife may have contributed to the modern malignant reputation of Hades and his realm, it’s unlikely to have been the primary factor.

The primary cause is most likely interference by the Medieval and Renaissance scholars who were passing along the mythic material in the intervening years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the modern era.  (Similar to what happened to Loki’s reputation, when the illiterate Vikings converted to Christianity, and some few versions of the old tales were written down with alterations and amendments by the priests recording them.)  That and Hollywood’s tendency to dumb down everything to make it more easily understood by the stoned monkeys the executives think the masses are.  (Okay, maybe that was a little harsh…)

Okay, I feel like there’s still more I need to say here, but it’s getting quite late, and I’m starting to lose focus.  (Literally and figuratively; my eyes need a rest….)  So if I think of the way this should have ended, I’ll come back to fix it up later.  Otherwise, I’ll leave it here for now, except to say that I plan to return to the topic of Hades in later posts, not just discussing his primary myths, but actually writing them out.  (I actually wrote most of the first one yesterday.  It’s got a bit of a children’s book tone to it, unlike my usual writing.)

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