All posts tagged mythology

P is for Pyerun

Published April 19, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


Or Perunu.  Or Perkonis.  Or Peron.  Or…well, there are a lot of different names, but I’ve chosen (somewhat randomly) to go with Pyerun, which is the Russian name.  Some of the names actually mean “thunder” or something related to it, but not all of them.

Whatever you want to call him, he’s a thunder god, and it’s possible that his names are derivations — in the various local languages — from the same Indo-European root that also produced Paranjanya, which is another name for Indra, who is also a storm god.

Pyerun was a god of thunder, but also of rain — of storms in general, really — which gave him some fertility aspects, and a duty to use his thunder to wake the earth itself from the winter sleep.  He also daily rescued the sun from being imprisoned by darkness, which must have made him a very busy god!

What I’d like to focus on, however, are two particular aspects of Pyerun — or rather, two of his accouterments.  He had a chariot that he rode through the sky, which was pulled by a huge male goat.  Even more tellingingly, he had an axe that he used to kill demons, which no matter how many times he threw it, always returned to his hand.

So, even if you only know the dreamy movie version, I’m sure you recognize that Pyerun’s axe is obviously similar to Thor’s magic hammer, Mjöllnir.  But the chariot and the goat are also like Thor:  he, too, had a goat-driven chariot.  Of course, his was pulled by two goats, and they had the remarkable ability of returning to life after having been killed and eaten, so long as their bones were still undamaged.  (Thor gained some useful servants that way, actually:  once after killing and cooking Thor’s goats, the poor fellow providing the god hospitality broke open one of the leg bones for the marrow, so the goat came back to life lamed in one leg.  In recompense for ruining his goat, the man’s whole family became Thor’s servants.)

Naturally, the relative proximity of the two cultures in both time and space means that Pyerun (and his neighbors/other selves)  was almost certainly at least partially influenced by the Norse myths of Thor.

(Which probably means I should have done something else today, but this was fast, and I have a paper to write that’s been hampered by all sorts of unrelated stuff, so…this ended up being what I wrote about.  Sorry if it seems like a cop-out.)

Of course, on the other hand, Pyerun’s fertility aspects are absent in Thor, but present in many other storm gods, so Pyerun is more than just the Slavic version of Thor.  Likewise, so far as I know, Thor never rescued the sun from the darkness (or anything else, for that matter) so that also is Pyerun’s own tale.

G is for Gwyn ap Nudd

Published April 8, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


In the land of Annwn, the Otherworld of the Tylwyth Teg, ruled Gwyn, a powerful warrior with a dark face.  He was often to be found out riding through the woods of his own realm or that of the mortals, on a wild hunt with frenzied followers.

Perhaps it was on one of these rides that he first spotted Creiddylad.  She was a beautiful girl — no, the most beautiful girl! — and the daughter of Lludd of the Silver Hand, a powerful and important king in his own right.  Creiddylad was staying at the court of King Arthur as a guest when her father decided to betroth her to Gwythyr ap Greidawl, one of Arthur’s knights.

For such a beautiful woman, the daughter of a king, to marry a mere knight was an outrage to Gwyn — though, in truth, the idea of her marrying anyone other than himself would have outraged him just as much, even if her intended had been a king among kings.  Rather than see her married to man unworthy of her, Gwyn set out to save her from that fate.  He and his men rode up and snatched her away from Gwythyr, taking her back to Annwn where Gwyn could make her his own bride, proud of himself for having thus rescued her.

Of course, Gwythyr told the tale not as a rescue, but as an abduction.

He told all his kin, and raised a great army to set out and rescue his purloined bride.

But what could an army of men do against the fey?  They were defeated, captured, tortured…it was a brutal and horrifying bloodbath, and it had done nothing to make Creiddylad desire to become Gwyn’s queen.

With no other recourse, Gwythyr turned to King Arthur for help.  After all, even Gwyn ap Nudd respected Arthur’s crown!

The king did not make his feelings known on the bitter contest between the two rivals for Creiddylad’s hand.  (If he had dared to do so, who knows what he might have done or said:  he might have sighed in disgust and told them both to go to the devil!  He had to deal with this sort of thing all too often, after all…)

What he did make clear was that he didn’t want to see this sort of behavior taking place in his kingdom.

They would have to come to an arrangement that everyone could agree to, and until that time, Creiddylad would be returned to her father.

So, that May Day, Gwyn and Gwythyr fought a duel over Creiddylad.

But Gwyn wasn’t using any of his powers as King of Annwn, only the skills of his blade, so he was unable to defeat his opponent.  And yet his opponent was unable to defeat him.

The duel inconclusive, the girl remained in her father’s castle, and the rivals agreed to fight again the following May Day.

But that, too, turned out in a draw.

As did the next duel.

Every year on May Day, until Judgement Day itself, Gwyn and Gwythyr will renew their battle in their desire to wed the beautiful Creiddylad.  Only then, when the final trumpets have sounded, will one of them finally manage to defeat the other, and make her his bride.

Yup, the comparison is just screaming out:  Gwyn is Hermes!

Okay, no, that’s not it.  (But I did see a bit in one of my sources that said Gwyn ap Nudd can act as the Welsh psychopomp, so that does make him Hermes as well as Hades.)

The problem, of course, with this being an Arthurian tale is that it’s hard to say how much contamination there is.  The Arthurian stories — no matter when they originated — were first being written down in the Middle Ages.  And while classical Greek and Roman myths were largely repressed, they were never fully forgotten, as the bastardized Medieval Ovid texts prove quite handily.  (That, among other reasons, is why I would have preferred to avoid Arthurian myths for these purposes.  But this one was just too beautiful a comparison to pass up!)

So, someone had to assemble and write these stories down.  Did that person know the tale of Hades/Pluto stealing away Persephone/Proserpine in order to make her his wife?

It’s not really a question that can be handily answered.  (Unless one has a time machine.  So if there’s any time travelers out there, let me know!)

I think there’s a good chance, however, that it’s not all late influence.  There may be some late influence, but the basic idea of an embodiment of warmth and growth that constantly passes underground and comes back out again is to be found in a lot of different cultures across the world (though often it’s a male figure who’s dying and being revived), including some that pre-date the Greeks, so…I’d call it a pretty basic motif of human civilization.

Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

Hades abducting Persephone.  Macedonian tomb fresco, Vergina. Wikimedia Commons.

There is one additional note here, and that’s incest.  My sources are not sure if Nudd and Lludd might be the same person; apparently the name Nudd is an archaic version of Lludd.  If they are the same person, then Gwyn and Creiddylad are brother and sister, in much the way that Hades and Persephone are uncle and niece.  (Though she’s his double-niece, so she might as well be his sister.  Or his daughter.  Actually, it’s kind of disgusting.)  In both cases, any consanguinity seems entirely ignored as irrelevant, perhaps because as one of the fair folk, Gwyn is not entirely a creature of flesh and blood, just as the Greek gods were not ruled by blood the same way human beings are.

However, it’s very possible that the conflation of Nudd and Lludd is the late interpretation:  just because the one has an archaic version of the other’s name, that doesn’t make them the same person!  (I can name lots of Greek mythic characters whose names were also used for very different people.)  It seems to me that modern interpreters of the myth may actually want Gwyn and Creiddylad to be siblings, to increase the strength of the comparison to Hades and Persephone.

And I’m editing this almost ten days later because I just found another great parallel.  (And yes, I should have found it sooner.  Actually, I should have found it soon enough to do something else for G, and go with this other one, but…)

Among the Iroquois people, there’s a tale of the corn goddess Onatah goes like this:

Onatah, daughter of Eithinoha, Mother Earth, was out gathering dew on one beautiful morning when she was suddenly seized by the ruler of the underworld, and carried off to his underground realm.  Her mother searched and searched for her, and during her frantic search, nothing could grow and the world became cold.  Eventually, the sun figured out what had happened to Onatah, and rescued her by splitting the ground open.  With Onatah’s return, Eithinoha rejoiced, warmth returned, and plants began to grow once more.  But the spirits of the underworld pined for Onatah as much as her mother had during her absence, and so they waited until the sun fell asleep in the autumn, and stole her away again.  The people had to perform many ceremonies each year to re-awaken the sun so that he could once more rescue Onatah.

That one’s so like Hades and Persephone (aside from the fact that there’s no mention of marriage) that it’s even the sun who finds the missing maiden.  (Although, in truth, it’s not always Helios who tells Demeter where Persephone is.  Sometimes it’s Hecate.)  In theory, it’s possible there could be some corruption by European influence, since Native American tales weren’t written down until the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, but it seems unlikely, unless the corruption was literally added in the process of being written down.

C is for Catequil

Published April 4, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


Catequil is one of the Incan gods of thunder.  (The other, Illapa, was originally the primary deity of the Qulla kingdom, added to the Incan pantheon after they conquered it.)

His methods of creating thunder and lightning were, of course, violent:  he beat the winds with a club to make thunder, and used a sling to throw thunderbolts.  (My sources were very vague here:  I’m not sure if this meant they saw thunder as starting out like a sling pellet, or if the source meant something more akin to an atlatl than a sling.  Though I’m not actually sure, now that I come to write that, that they had atlatl in the Andes.  They should have had them, given that there was trade that passed up well into Mesoamerica, but…I’m feeling doubt.   Possibly because I got really delayed and did very little pre-writing, so instead of writing this two weeks ago, I’m writing it yesterday.  (Well, yesterday to you reading it on April 4th.  It’s obviously today for me as I write it.  And yesterday (my yesterday) was spent hiking all over a pretty big convention center on about three hours of sleep.  So I’m still pretty exhausted, and therefore a teensy bit out of it.)  Still, I feel like I’ve seen atlatl-like devices in Moche art, so the Inca should have had them….or am I losing my mind?)

Okay, anyway, moving on.  Pretty much all polytheistic cultures have thunder gods — and many non-polytheistic cultures had spirits and such that were assigned credit/blame for thunder and lightning — so I will not be going into the generic comparisons here, because there’s just too many to list.

But there was one other thing I detail I found about Catequil, though I admit that my source may not be the best here.  (Unfortunately, “C” did not turn out to be a good letter for me, somehow.  Most of what I found didn’t compare well.)  Anyway, according to that source, Catequil sometimes would turn into a lightning-bolt himself, and enter into a woman’s body as she was having intercourse with her husband.  This would result in twins, one belonging to the husband, and the other to the god.

Now that gives me something to go on!

Seeing twins as belonging one to a mortal man and one to a god was not all that unusual, I’m sure.  (Unfortunately, I only just now thought of looking that up, and I’m headed back to the convention in about ten minutes, so I can’t really research it right now.  Ugh.  Hopefully this will be the month’s low point…)

But there’s one that screams out “hey, don’t forget about me!”  Because there’s one set of twins born one to the woman’s husband, and one born to a thunder god.

And I’m sure — if you know anything about me or my blog — that you know I’m talking about the Dioscuri.

As is well known, the horny sky-god Zeus took on the form of a swan in order to have his way with Leda, Queen of Sparta.  (This has been well — perhaps over — celebrated in art, in ancient times as well as from the Renaissance onwards.)  But she also had sex with her husband Tyndareos on the same day.  (In reality, to bear twins to two men, sleeping with them on the exact same day would not be required, but…how could they know that?)

The result, as is well known, was two sets of twins, the Dioscuri Castor and Polydeuces, and the femme fatale pair Helen and Clytemnestra.  (Naturally the women get the bad side of the arrangement.  I love Greek myths, but I hate the misogyny so rife in the myth — and culture.  And yes, I realize that doesn’t make a lot of sense.)

I feel like I had more to say on this when I started it.  However, that was an exhausting day ago, and I no longer remember.

Sorry this sort of petered out and died.

Hopefully it won’t happen again.

B is for Bacab

Published April 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


The Bacabs are four Mayan deities — or the aspects of a single quadripartite deity — who were associated with the cardinal directions.  Each was also associated with a color:  the northern Bacab was associated with white, the eastern Bacab with red, the southern Bacab with yellow, and the western Bacab with black.

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of myth associated with them, apart that they held up the sky, and had escaped when the world was destroyed in a flood.  (Guess I missed them yesterday, lol!)  Of course, if they were holding up the sky, then they obviously couldn’t do much without dropping it, and that would be bad…so they probably featured in a lot of now-lost stories of destruction at the ends of the various ages of the Mayan calendar.  (Or maybe they wouldn’t have; maybe there weren’t even such stories in the first place.  I didn’t have as much time to research as I wanted, due to class work and work work.)  In any event, the one myth I saw mentioned that featured them was one of upheaval on a truly massive, “I think we should call the Avengers” scale.  (Okay, that sounded totally out of left field, but…it’s less crazy than you think, between my post for today on my other blog and between my plans for today IRL.  And, now that I think about it, gods like these (but fictional ones, not ones stolen from a real culture) would make a pretty sweet opponent for a superhero team…)

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex.  Wikimedia Commons.

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

As the gods who held up the sky — and had associations with weather, particularly rain — the Bacabs probably had a much larger ritual presence than a mythological one.  All the more so since the Maya had another set of four gods, the Chaacs, who had pretty much the same function, and who were closely associated — perhaps even somewhat conflated — with the Bacabs.  (And yes, the Chaacs had been in the running for Monday’s post.  But I had fewer good options for B, so the Bacabs won.)

Okay, so that seemed a bit light, I know.  But now we get to the comparative side!

Obviously, an easy comparison is Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek mythology.  ‘Cause, you know, they both hold up the sky.  But that’s actually a pretty weak comparison.  After all, Atlas isn’t associated with any of the cardinal directions (in fact, his location was never quite certain and changed from version to version) and he isn’t associated with any colors as far as I know.  So let’s look for some better matches!

  • The Four Symbols.  Chinese (and Korean and Japanese).  This is very common in Japanese (and Korean) popular culture, so this was the first thing I thought of when I came across the Bacabs!  These four spirits are associated with colors and cardinal directions.  They also have animal forms and are not holding up the sky, but they are associated with constellations, so they are at least associated with the sky.  The northern spirit is the Black Turtle (Xuán Wū, or Genbu in Japanese), the eastern spirit is the Azure Dragon (Qīng Lóng, or Seiryu in Japanese), the southern spirit is the Vermilion Bird (Zhū Què, or Suzaku in Japanese), and the western spirit is the White Tiger (Baí Hǔ, or Byakko in Japanese).  None of the colors line up, but three colors are represented in both cases.  These four spirits are associated with the seasons, so that’s another tie to the rain and weather functions of the Bacabs, though again it’s not a perfect comparison.
  • The Four Heavenly Kings.  Buddhist.  This was the second comparison I thought of when I read about the Bacabs.  (Admittedly, I thought of them because I know their Japanese names from video games, but…ahem.  Moving on.)  They’re protective gods, and they don’t hold up the sky.  But they are associated with colors and the cardinal directions:  north (Vaiśravaṇa, or Bishamonten in Japanese) with yellow or green, east (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, or Jikokuten in Japanese) with white, south (Virūḍhaka or Zochoten in Japanese) with blue, and west (Virūpākṣa or Komokuten in Japanese) with red.  A number of the colors are the same, but not lined with the same direction.  (Which is hardly surprising.)  And their functions are different, so this is definitely a weak comparison when you get right down to it.
  • The Four Sons of Horus.  Egyptian.  Not a strong comparison, I’ll say that right now.  These four sons of Horus are each associated with a cardinal direction, but their primary role was as the heads on the canopic jars that received the Pharoah’s internal organs, and the jars were then left facing in the direction associated with the son of Horus in question.  (Though early canopic jars had the Pharaoh’s own head depicted on them.)  I saw an image on Wikimedia — a modern drawing of canopic jars — that depicted each jar a different color, and three of the four lined up exactly with the colors on the Four Heavenly Kings, but I don’t think that had anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief, and was modern cross-pollination of ideas, or whatever that might be called.  (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m no Egyptologist.)
  • The four dwarves who hold up the dome of the sky.  Norse.  Now this is a pretty good comparison!  They’re holding up the sky from the four corners of the world, just like the Bacabs.  They don’t have colors associated with them, and they probably didn’t see much in the way of worship (especially considering Norse dwarves turned to stone when hit by sunlight) but they’re still a pretty strong parallel.  Their names translate to Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western, and they’re believed to be associated with the four winds.

I didn’t find any perfect comparisons for the Bacabs — apart from the Chaacs, and even that’s a flawed comparison since they’re both Mayan — but there are several strong points of comparison between four cultures that are all quite distant and different from the Mayan culture.  (And also I found a Hindu comparison that I elected to leave out because it wasn’t four gods associated with the four cardinal directions, but eight gods associated with eight directions.)

Of course, the four cardinal directions are pretty universal.  Or rather, they’re always there, whether a culture comes to acknowledge them as important or not.  (Whether or not they are, in fact, important is a metaphysical speculation that I don’t really have time for right now.)  And colors are present in every culture, no matter how they’re named or recognized.  Beings holding up the sky…are also not uncommon.  After all, you cannot personally touch the sky (unless you’re on some really psychadelic medications) so it has to be far away, and before the advent of modern science, coming to the conclusion that it’s a dome of air and the color we see is the way it refract the light is not likely.  So some other explanation had to be arrived at, and some god(s) — or monster(s) — holding up the sky is as likely an explanation as any other, perhaps even a more likely explanation than any other.  (As silly as Aristotle’s crystal dome may sound to us now, it was actually an amazing leap forward in scientific thought at the time.)

A is for Atrahis

Published April 1, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


Enlil, a god of winds and storms, ruled the Earth, and his wife Nintur had created human beings by mixing his blood with some sand.  Humans were a slave race, as far as Enlil was concerned, and he only allowed them to reproduce because he didn’t dare give them immortality, lest they rise up against him.  (As had happened before, with the Igigi.)

But humans were enthusiastic about reproducing — all too much so! — and soon there were so many humans that they made too much noise, and Enlil wanted to be rid of them.

He tried to kill the off with a plague (provided by Namtar, the god in control of such things), but the humans survived.

Then Enlil tried to kill them with a famine, by preventing plants and animals from growing.  But the humans survived.

So Enlil decided to flood the world and drown them all.  Then he would have peace and quiet at last.

Not all the gods agreed with Enlil.

And Enlil knew one of the gods must be helping the mortals, or they never would have survived his first two attempts to destroy them.  So this time, he forced all the gods to swear they would tell no one about the coming flood.

But he neglected to tell them to tell no thing about the flood.

So one of the gods went down to the palace of Atrahis, who ruled between the two rivers.  Some say it was Ea, the god of wisdom, who went to Atrahis’ palace, but others say it was Enki, a trickster and water god, who also liked to take credit for the creation of human beings.

Whichever god it was, he knew he couldn’t break his oath to Enlil, so he didn’t speak a word to Atrahis.  Instead, he turned his back on the king, and looked at the wall.  “Wall,” the god whispered, “brace yourself well, for soon you will be spattered with mud, and water will seek to pass through every tiny crevice in you.  Do not tell the humans this, but Enlil plans to flood the world.”

Then the god left, and Atrahis knew that the human race faced a threat like no other, even worse than the plague and the famine he had already saved his people from, thanks to the aid of the kinder of the gods.

Atrahis ordered a mighty boat built, and sent men in all directions to bring him plants and animals of all sorts.  His soldiers were still loading all the animals onto the boat as the torrential rain began to swell up the rivers.

As the land flooded, Atrahis wept for all his subjects that he could not save, but at least he and his wife and a large sampling of plants and animals had survived.

For now.

Even as the flood waters began to recede, Atrahis knew the danger had not passed.  Enlil still hated humanity, and there was little hope that he could repopulate the world if such a powerful god was opposed to him at every turn.

So when Atrahis was finally able to step off his boat and onto dry land once more, he immediately began to make a fine sacrifice to the gods, and especially to Enlil, begging his acceptance.

Enlil had never been worshipped before, and he had to admit it was nice.  He still didn’t like noisy humanity, but he decided that he would grudgingly allow it to live.  But every time thunder rumbles, Enlil is snorting in disgust as humans disrupt his sleep.

You know, I really didn’t intend to do a full telling like that.  It just sort of happened.  (It better not happen too often!  This is going to take long enough as it is!)

Anyway, some of the comparisons here are pretty darn obvious, so I’ll only cover them briefly.  In fact, I think just saying “Noah’s ark” will cover that comparison well enough, and I’ll move on to ones less well known.  The Greek flood myth, with the survivors Deucalion and Pyrrha, is also pretty well known, so I won’t go into it here.  (However, if you don’t know it, I’ve already covered it in one of my myth retellings…though there are some liberties taken with it…)

11th Tablet of Gilgamesh Epic.  Photo by Mike Peel.

11th Tablet of Gilgamesh Epic. Photo by Mike Peel.

Those familiar with Mesopotamian myth already may be surprised at the name “Atrahis,” because for most people — myself included — the name of the Mesopotamian flood survivor is “Utnapishtim,” since that was his name in the epic of Gilgamesh.  But there were a lot of city-states (to use a term not usually associated with that area) in Mesopotamia, and a number of languages — and even more dialects — so it’s hardly surprising that names differed between them.

But the comparisons don’t end there; flood myths are nearly universal, so much so that it’s hard to know where to start in listing the all!  I guess I’ll go alphabetically…which is actually pretty appropriate, given the whole A-to-Z thing…

  • Doquebuth:  from the Skagit tribe, in the northwestern part of the United States.  The story goes that Doquebuth, his parents, and three other adults rode in a canoe with two of every animal as the primordial world was flooded.  (That must have been a very large canoe!)  However, this story likely represents post-contact contamination from Christian missionaries.
  • Fintan:  Celtic.  Fintan was an Irish survivor of Noah’s flood — so obviously this is a post-Christian influence myth — who survived by changing his form to a hawk or a salmon.  He might have survived forever, if he hadn’t been caught in salmon form and cooked by Finn MacCool.  (Which was lucky for Finn, since Fintan had eaten magic hazelnuts and gained all the wisdom of the gods, which was then passed on to Finn.)

    Manu in his boat.

    Manu in his boat. Wikimedia Commons

  • Manu:  Vedic.  Manu found a tiny fish in his bowl as he washed his hands.  It begged him to spare its life, promising to later save his.  He kept the fish in a bowl, then a tank, then a lake, and then the sea as it grew and grew.  Once it was a massive fish in the sea, it told Manu that the world would soon be flooded.  Manu built a boat, tethered it to the fish’s horn, and the fish towed his boat to safety as the world was filled with water, eventually bringing it to rest on the peaks of the submerged Himalayas.  Only then did the fish reveal itself as the god Vishnu (or Brahma), and order Manu to fill the world with people.
  • Nu’u:  Hawaiian.  The other gods let Nu’u know that Kane was going to swamp the world with a tidal wave, so Nu’u put pigs, coconuts and other supplies in a boat and rode out the wave, beaching on top of a mountain when it was done.
  • Pukeheh:  from the Walapai people of Mexico.  The twin sons of Mother Earth, Tochopa and Hokomata, had very different temperaments.  Tochopa played with the newly made human race the way a human child plays with toys.  But Hokomata hated anything that his brother loved, so he tried to destroy humans.  He taught them to fight, but they weren’t very efficient at wiping each other out.  (He forgot to teach them how to make weapons of mass destruction.)  So the impatient Hokomata send a flood to destroy the humans and rob his brother of his playthings.  But Tochopa saved his daughter Pukeheh by putting her in a dugout canoe, and after the flooding had subsided, Tochopa had two of the other gods father children on Pukeheh, creating a new human race.  But even this new humanity, descended from the gods, still had to fear Hokomata’s rivalry with his brother.
  • Szeukha:  from the Pima, in the southwestern deserts of the United States.  Szeukha was the son of the Earth-maker, but he lived on Earth with the humans his father had created.  But the lord of water, the Great Eagle, didn’t care for the humans.  At first he would simply prey on them, eating them as any bird of prey might eat a smaller animal.  But that was too slow, and so he caused a great flood to destroy them all.  Szeukha survived by floating on a lump of pine resin and wood.  Eventually he came to land on the mountain peak where Great Eagle had his eyrie.  The two dueled with magic, and Szeukha had to enlist the aid of the stones and dirt.  Once Great Eagle was dead, Szeukha created new humans from the tattered remains of Great Eagle’s earlier human victims.  Thus the human race was degraded from its original state, now having been created from the corpses of the first h/umans.  (I wonder if Mary Shelley ever heard this tale?)
  • Yu:  Chinese.  A bit different from these other tales, but it’s a flood myth, so I’ll give it a mention.  China was being devastated by a series of floods.  They weren’t so severe as to wipe out the human race, but they were doing considerable damage to people, their property, and the food they needed to eat.  Yu’s father had spent nine years trying to control the floods, at the end of which time he was executed for his failure.  (There are accounts of Yu’s birth in various fanciful ways, but those are not really relevant here.)  Yu, too, was ordered to bring the flooding under control, and there are three tales of how he did so.  In two tales, he went up to Heaven to ask for Swelling Earth that would make mountains and river channels; in one, he was given the Swelling Earth, and in the other he was so polite that he was also allowed to see the divine plan for the universe itself.  The third — and more interesting — version of the tale has Yu discovering that the floods were being caused by the monstrous children of Gong Gong, a water god, and that the floods could only be controlled by killing the monsters.  Yu did this, changing his form to fight them as a dragon.  Once the monsters were dead, Yu used his transformations to sculpt the landscape to prevent any future floods.  It took thirteen years and left him so exhausted that even though he was made emperor, he only reigned for eight years before dying of his exhaustion.

There were also others that I found in sources I couldn’t corroborate.  (And I’m sure I outright missed plenty of them.)  But this is enough to show that flood myths are common across the world.

I’m sure many books (and/or many books’ worth of articles) have been written on just why myths of massive floods are so nearly universal, so I won’t both speculating on that here.  (Not right now, anyway.  Maybe in some future post.)

For now, let me apologize for starting out April with such a lengthy post; this is not representative of how they’re all going to go this month.  Some (hopefully most) will be much shorter, and most will only be comparing the main myth to one or two others.

Anyway, happy April!  I hope we all enjoy our April A-to-Z!


Snakes, Serpents and Dragons (in Greek Myth)

Published October 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Before I write up a myth re-telling, I like to check and make sure I’m not overlooking any interesting variations.  (Admittedly, I don’t always do that.  But I try to.)  The way I check is to read up on them in Timothy Gantz’s Early Greek Myth, possibly one of the most indispensable research tools in the history of mythological studies.

In reading up on Cadmos for yesterday’s post, I came across the following tidbit:

In art we have only a little evidence.  Our earliest illustration is probably a Lakonian cup of the mid-sixth century now in the Louvre; on it a warrior with helmet, shield, and spear attacks a serpent that has twisted itself around a column of a shrine or fountain house and rears itself up to strike (Louvre E669).  Most often this is taken to represent Achilleus at the fountain house where he will ambush Troilos, but without Troilos present it is hard to see how customers would recognize the story, unless a preliminary encounter with a snake was a standard part of the literary tradition.  We will see in chapter 16 that a snake does in fact appear with Achilleus in several artistic representations of the ambush, but never as an object of Achilleus’ concern.

That got me to thinking, because the little disc-shaped ceramic offerings found at the temple to Achilles on Leuke often featured a depiction of a snake.  And yet I certainly can’t think of any surviving myth about Achilles involving a snake.  (Admittedly, I don’t know all of them, and I’ve only read half, maybe two-thirds of what Gantz has to say about the Trojan War, ’cause there’s a heck of a lot of it.  But if you think about it, the Trojan War is much more human-vs-human than it is mortal-vs-monster, so it seems unlikely that there is such a myth, unless — as Gantz says here — there was one in the encounter with Troilos, which is an encounter for which we have no surviving text.)

Moving on from there, I started wondering just what snakes, serpents and dragons represented in the ancient Greek mind.  (Beings identified in modern translation as “dragons” are generally more accurately “serpents.”  Or that seems to be the case from what I’ve seen, anyway.)  Snakes — by which we’re to assume normal snakes such as can actually be found in reality — seem to play any number of roles, from the unwitting (and unwilling) cause of Tiresias’ transformation into a woman and back again, to the source of oracular powers, to the (unwitting) teachers to grant Polyidos the ability to restore Minos’ son Glaucos back from the dead, to the expected convenient cause of death.  There’s a lot of death here, and the ones not connected to death are still liminal; snakes would seem to have been viewed as agents of transformation in some way, connected to more than one realm.  Between the poisonous bite of some species of snake and the fact that they live in holes in the ground (and the ancient Greek afterlife was (almost) entirely underground) it’s easy to see how they would be seen as connected to both the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.  (Which ought to explain their presence on the Leuke tablets…except that the White Island was the one afterlife not located underground.)  As to serpents (here meaning gigantic snakes not found in nature), they were monsters to be slain, and yet they were also sacred guardians of holy sites, a fact that didn’t stop them from being slain, though it often led to punishment for the one who slew them.  (Apollo’s slaying of Python being the major exception to the punishment thing.  Gods rarely suffered punishment, no matter how many awful things they did.)  If I follow the classification I just laid out, then the thing that bit Philoctetes must have been a serpent, not a snake, since it was the guardian of a holy site, and he suffered horribly for having killed it.  But on the other hand, it was probably not gigantic, which would make it simply a snake.  I’m fairly sure it’s usually described as a snake, not a serpent, which would mean either my division of roles between snakes and serpents is either not accurate, or it has exceptions.  Or it could mean the Philoctetes myth underwent late changes, after most of the other myths had been formed.

On top of this, let’s not forget other snakey associations.  Some monstrous females — the Gorgons and the Furies, especially — had snakes for hair, Maenads were said to wear snakes in their hair, and some particularly monstrous monsters — Typhon especially, but also Echidna — had serpents for legs, at least in some vase paintings, if not in any textual sources.  And some things that weren’t serpents were very much serpent-like, such as the Lernean Hydra.  Again — apart from the Maenads — monsters, associated with death.  (And, actually, the Maenads did have a reputation for tearing things — and sometimes people — into pieces, so maybe they’re not such an exception.)

Now, to back off the whole “symbols of transition” thing, as it’s very much an external, artificial label, applied to beliefs not held by oneself, I want to try and suss out what the snakes really represented to the ancient Greeks themselves.  Obviously, there’s a lot of fear involved in the myths connected to them.  Or rather, a lot to fear.  Because given the way women lived in ancient Greece, no man would want to be turned into a woman in those days, so the tale of Tiresias’ transformation was obviously something one didn’t want to emulate.  Admittedly, gaining oracular powers doesn’t sound like a bad deal, and Melampos made good use of the powers he gained when the snake licked his ears, but the powers gained by Cassandra (and/or her twin brother Helenos) by being licked on the ears by a snake…those powers were no picnic.  (Especially in Cassandra’s case.  Helenos at least survived the war…but he was the only one of Priam’s 50 sons to survive!  So while his powers may have let him survive, he still had to watch his entire family slain horribly.)  And as to the serpents!  They were monsters that went around killing people (sometimes, anyway) and yet killing them might well turn out to be even worse than letting them live!

So the myths definitely send a message of “run the other way if you see one” regarding snakes and serpents.  But why?  I know almost nothing about the fauna of ancient Greece, so I don’t know if they had any particularly venomous snakes living in their area, but even if they did, I’m not sure that follows as a good etiological reason to make snakes into such objects of fear.  After all, in Egypt the deadly poisonous snakes were a symbol of royal power!  (Though that, too, might have had the message of “stay away” to the average Egyptian…)

I know there’s a tendency in the modern world for men to be afraid of snakes.  Well, of course there is!  Snakes are an obvious phallic symbol, and yet unless the snake is very tiny, it’d have to make most men feel rather (or very) inadequate.  Among some men that would be reason enough to fear them.  If that same, rather Freudian explanation for fear of snakes also applied to the ancient Greeks (and I’m not at all sure it does), then that might explain the mythic depiction of snakes…but I don’t really buy that as an explanation.  (Despite that I’m the one who just said it.)

Stepping into a different time and place for a moment, it has often been pointed out that the famous tale that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland can’t be true, because Ireland never had snakes to begin with, and that thus the snakes in that tale are symbolic, representing the pagan gods, which he “drove out” by taking away their followers.  In the same way, Python is often said to be the original god worshiped at Delphi, and that when Apollo slew it, he took over its holy site, making it his own holy site.  (Unfortunately, I can’t remember now if that’s something that’s exclusively said by modern scholars, attributing the earlier worship at the site to a pre-Greek earth deity that metamorphosed into Python over time, or if there were actual myths that said something to that basic effect.  I could look it up in Gantz, to see if there were such myths, but by now it’s almost 11:30 pm, so I don’t want to take the time.)  However, I don’t think one can extend that to any other monstrous serpents — or other deadly figures associated with snakes, like Typhon or the Gorgons — and assume that they, too, were symbols of pre-Greek gods.  There are a number of reasons why that seems unlikely, not the least of which being that too many pre-Greek gods seem to have been folded into the Greek mythic structure without becoming monsters.  (Though some, like Helen, didn’t exactly become paragons of virtue, either.)  And, of course, that explanation particularly falls flat because there’s no reason that the gods of defeated peoples (who were not really “defeated” anyway) would become snakes/serpents in the new mythos anyway.  (In St. Patrick’s case, the snake analogy makes sense, because of the snake in the Garden of Eden, giving snakes a particularly bad reputation in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.)

So what is the explanation?

Beats me.

But I’d love to find out.  If I had the time — and if I was actually getting my degree in mythology/folklore, or ancient literature — I would definitely like to track down all the mentions of snakes in the surving mythological texts, and maybe the ones in the non-mythological texts as well (philosophy, history, et cetera) and see what kind of conclusions I could draw from that.  I think that would be a really interesting and informative study.

But I don’t have the time, and I’m not getting my degree in mythology.

So right now all I can do is think “wow, I wonder what’s up with that?” and maybe idly search on Amazon to see if someone else has already done this research and written a book on it.  (Though I kind of doubt that they have.  This is awfully specific stuff.)

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