De-myth-ify: Sisyphus (Part Two)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, a story from Homer’s Iliad of a man immortalised after his death, today. This is part two of a two-part series on Sisyphus. If you haven’t read the previous part, do go and read Part One before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

So, when we finished our story, Sisyphus was eternally damned to push a boulder and fail at it. This is also what Sisyphus has unwittingly become famous for. This story was quite different from the more ‘classical’ myths we have discussed before in many ways. Here, a guy brought his fate on himself, unlike Oedipus who was pretty much at the mercy of his terrible luck or Perseus who was destined to be a hero. For Sisyphus, he was seemingly receiving the ‘karma’, if you will, for his actions, i.e. his terrible fate came from his terrible actions. His life and decisions were completely in his control and he was (apparently) fully responsible for his punishment.

Although, it is never exactly stipulated what Sisyphus earned his punishment for; his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death or simply, upsetting the natural order of things? His punishment being fit for his crime is a controversial thing logically, at least in my mind because for that we have to consider which crime exactly he is being punished for. It seems like a teensy bit much, to eternally punish someone. (I know he was a murderer, he chained up death and stuff but still) Was it so harsh because the gods wanted to make an example out of him? To demotivate other mortals from trying to resist the natural order? To teach people to not incur the wrath of the gods and uphold their ideals; like Xenia? Is it really a justified punishment? This is all worth having a think over. (And maybe, Zeus if you’re listening, have a council answer?)

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Sisyphus by Titian

Nevertheless, I could not discuss this story without bringing up the French philosopher Albert Camus’ very famous and revolutionary essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, which uses this myth to introduce and explain the philosophy of ‘absurd’. (I highly recommend giving it a read, it is very thought-provoking!) In this existentialist essay, Camus dissects the ethos of the myth and gets into the nitty-gritty of it. He brings up the fairness of Sisyphus’ punishment, much like we just discussed. He also puts forward that the story of Sisyphus can be considered a tragedy like Oedipus Rex but unlike that story where events transpired because of the character’s lack of awareness about their destiny, the myth of Sisyphus becomes tragic because Sisyphus is aware of the futility of his fate, of the uselessness of his labour. We can even see this aspect of this myth highlighted in modern linguistics like in English, a Sisyphean task is one that is considered laborious and futile; a task that can never be completed. (I love finding such things in everyday life, its almost like pop culture reference but for myths that are thousands of years old, how cool is that?)camus

Camus thinks of Sisyphus as an ‘absurd hero’.His fate is very much his because he knows that the boulder will roll back down every time and still, he persists. He doesn’t stop pushing it despite being aware that it is pointless and useless, and for that, according to Camus, he should be considered a hero in his own right. Being set up for failure and still persisting takes its own special kind of strength and is exactly what makes Sisyphus an ‘absurd’ hero. From here, he uses the absurdity of Sisyphus’ heroics to explain the philosophy of the absurd. Camus puts forth the idea that human life, as we know it is just as futile as Sisyphus’ punishment, if not more. We still try our hardest at it, we still live each day, we acquire resources, we build connections and we don’t stop, even though it is all utterly useless. Life is inherently devoid of meaning but humans since aeons ago have not and will not stop searching for it. This is the absurdity of the human affliction and the absurd nature of humanity’s existence. (I told you it was existentialist. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

As you might have realised, the genius of this myth is quite extraordinary. It might seem like such a small, dare I say, absurd(!) myth, but Homer really put forth a piece of genius through it. The more you delve into it, the more meanings you can find and the more wonderfully enlightened discussions you can have. It has been a joy to discuss this story and discover how much I had underappreciated it. With that, we come to the end of our journey with Sisyphus.

Until our next mythic adventure!

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What are your thoughts on Albert Camus’ philosophy of the ‘absurd’? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

 

De-myth-ify: Sisyphus (Part One)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, a story from Homer’s Iliad of a man immortalised after his death, today. This is part one of a two-part series on Sisyphus.

For the previous series of posts on Perseus and Medusa in the De-myth-ify series, click here.

Today’s story is quite different from the ones we have discussed before. For one, this isn’t the story of a hero, of a good, brave guy just trying to exist without offending the gods, having a prophecy made about him or getting into other greek trouble. It’s someone who is quite literally the opposite, a man who lived to scorn the gods, did not care and just, wasn’t a great guy. His story is also quite different as in the most important part(and what he is known or) came after his death, after his story concluded. So, without further ado, let’s get into the story of the man who was in Homer’s words, “The most cunning of all men”, Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the sly, deceitful and ruthless (and if you didn’t figure it out, very Slytherin) king of Corinth. He was super extravagant, lived in general disdain of and did not care about the wrath of the Greek gods (Which is almost I daresay, refreshing). To prove himself an iron-fisted ruler, he would often kill the guests and travellers that came to Corinth. (What else would you do?) This was a big no-no in Ancient Greece and a direct violation of Xenia, the concept of generosity and hospitality shown to guests. The patron of Xenia was Zeus(who you know, isn’t that great himself), who obviously was really angry with Sisyphus and wanted to punish him. Zeus ordered the God of Death, Thanatos to chain him up in Tartarus, the deep abyss in the Underworld, for all eternity. (Punishment fitting the crime indeed)

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Zeus de Smyrne discovered in Smyrna in 1680.

When Thanatos came for him, genius trickster as he was, he asked Thanatos to demonstrate to him how the chains worked, trapped him in them and escaped. (Say what you will, but that is smooth) Since the literal personification of death was chained up, people stopped dying. You could be chopped up to bits and still make it to dinner. The gods were mortified and finally, Ares, the God of War went and freed Thanatos because with no one dying, his wars had become boring. (Great reasoning) So now, our protagonist has literally cheated death and effectively levelled up. Would you believe that he will cheat death one more time? (You’d think they’d learn, right?)

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Thanatos sculptured marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, c. 325–300 BC

The second time around, Sisyphus instructed his wife, Merope to not perform the proper burial ceremonies for him after his death and throw his naked body in the middle of a public square as a test of her love( Seems a bit extra, but okay) Due to this, when he reached the Underworld, he manipulated the Queen Persephone into letting him go back to scold Merope and ensuring that the proper rites occur. She lets him go because she is great and then once back, he shows no signs of coming back to the land of the Dead. Thanatos is understandably too terrified of the man and thus refuses to go to bring him back and Sisyphus ends up living to a ripe old age. (I know he’s a murderer and stuff but what an icon)

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Statue of Persephone. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

When he finally died, the gods knew they weren’t going to let him go this time. Now, we get to the most famous part of the story, the part you knew, if nothing else about Sisyphus. He was eternally punished to push a boulder up a hill, futilely because as soon as he would reach near the top, the boulder would roll back down and he would have to start over from the bottom of the hill. (Not sure if the crime fits the punishment here exactly but we’ll get into that later) So, as the legend goes, Sisyphus is still at his hill in the Underworld, pushing a boulder up a hill, doing an arduous task that is doomed to fail. And on that, laboured(Ha!) note, we come to the end of the story of the very grey character that was Sisyphus.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: Do you think Sisyphus deserved his punishment? Why/Why not? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

De-myth-ify: Matsyavatara (Part Two)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the first of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Matsya or the fish, today. This is part two of a two-part series on the Matsyavatara.

For the previous post in this series, click here.

So, where were we? Matsya or Lord Vishnu fulfilled his devotee Manu’s life long desire of seeing him. He also gave him instructions to build a boat and put the seven sages, seeds of all plants and males and females of all the animals(Plus the snake god Vasuki) on it. (And we all thought of a certain biblical hero) Then, he set off to find the horse-headed demon Hayagriva, who had stolen the Vedas from the Lord of Creation, Brahma and was hiding at the bottom of the ocean. Now, let’s focus on that part of the story.

Matsya, a fish as large as the ocean itself, made its way to where Hayagriva sat, guarding the Vedas. Hayagriva saw the huge fish from afar and was terrified of this unnaturally sized fish. (You get that, right, just a giant fish coming at him, anyone would be terrified.) Before he could even think of how to protect himself, the fish attacked him and sent him reeling. There was a brief and with no offence to Hayagriva’s demon abilities, highly futile struggle, at the end of which, Hayagriva was dead and the Vedas promptly returned to Brahma, to their rightful place. (Sorry, no major action sequence here, you guys)

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Our Hindu(Read biblical) hero, Manu on the other hand, had successfully built his ship. He had brought the seven sages, seeds of all the plants, male and female of all the animals and Vasuki, on board. He patiently awaited his Lord, while the Earth was ravaged by torrential rains and flooded to such an extent that it seemed that all of the earth was one giant ocean. The boat almost capsized several times as the water level rose, however, all the occupants of the boat had complete faith in Lord Vishnu.

They were rewarded for their faith as the fish eventually turned up and told Manu to use Vasuki, the snake god as a rope and tie the boat to its horn. The flood swept over the land but the boat was safe because it was protected by Lord Vishnu. Watching the death and destruction, Manu wondered why humanity had earned such a deadly end. At this, Lord Vishnu told him that he was the only moral man left on earth and he would go on to be the father of future generations of mankind, or the Manavas. After the storm abated, Matsya dropped them all off at the Himalayas, for them to begin the new Yuga and continue human civilisation.

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With this, the story of the first of the Dasavatara of Vishnu, Matsyavatara, as well as the Satya Yuga comes to a somewhat mixed end.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

This story is not a ‘classic’ Hindu myth. It is relatively unknown, and a very simple story, which I see as being representative of the simpler times it was set in. It is set in the era where people were the nicest, even if they did go immoral by that standard. (Can you imagine? What is immoral to people who never ever lie?) It does still have some features of Hindu mythology that are unique and quite different from other world mythologies.

For instance, it is highly reverent. Hinduism is a present and thriving religion, even to this day, and is one of the oldest religions in the world. So, Hindu mythology is usually about gods or their incarnations and they are very much involved in the stories. (Which is wildly different from the Greek trope of demigods, or heroes) They are also quite positive and tend to have morals associated with them. (Basically, in a very un-greek fashion, they make great stories for little kids) For this story(In my opinion), the moral is that God will always protect you if you’re a good person. There’s many more, but I think this story makes a good foray into Hindu mythology and as the first of the 10 major incarnations of Lord Vishnu(Who is usually quite prominent in Hindu myths), a great beginner tale.

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Vishnu’s Dasvatara

Now, let’s talk about the elephant(Or giant fish, more aptly) in the room. The really really obvious similarities between this story and the story of Noah’s Ark from Biblical mythology. Both stories have God telling a good man that there will be a flood(Which also implies both have a great apocalyptic flood), both have him instructed to build a boat(Or an ark), both have him bring seeds and male and females of all the animals on it, both have the boat survive as it is protected by God and finally, in both, civilisation begins afresh. (That was an excess of the word both, I don’t ever want to do that again)

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So, the obvious question is, who cheated off whom? Who copied? To which, I say, I genuinely believe there was no copying as such. Hindu Puranas are much much older than the Bible but I really think that as people travelled in the old world, they took stories with them and stories would grow and modify with each retelling, making them similar but different stories that stand on their own and represent the people who believe in them well. Hindus like to visualise God, make him tangible and real and thus, in their version of the story, God is a giant fish. Christians, on the other hand, believe in a capital G- God, and thus God is not physically present to protect Noah, but his protection is with him. All in all, it is just another coincidence in the wonderful world of mythology, and these coincidences are something that I have always loved to find in various mythologies.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: How did you like this story and what do you think of the differences and similiarities in various mythologies? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Matsyavatara (Part One)

Let’s talk about Hindu mythology and the story of the first of Vishnu’s 10 incarnations or Dasavatara, the Matsya or the fish, today. This is part one of a two-part series on the Matsyavatara.

In this myth, unlike in Greek mythology, I cannot just launch into the main story because it is far too complicated and far too confusing if you are not aware of the background in which it is set. This series is an attempt to simplify the story found in the Matsya Purana, and among the oldest stories in the eighteen major Puranas in Hindu literature. So without further ado, let us begin with somewhat of a prologue and set the scene for the story, hope you’ll enjoy it.

In Hindu mythology, time is considered cyclical and is divided into eras or Yugas. Each Yuga is supposed to be approximately 4320 million human years and equivalent to a day in the life of the Lord of Creation, Brahma. When evil overrules the good, there is Pralay or an apocalypse and a new Yuga begins afresh. Also at the end of every Yuga, Brahma goes to sleep, after a whole day of creation having tired him out. (Cmon, he earned that nap, let him have it, its been literal million years.) Brahma’s knowledge of creation came from the Vedas, which are the oldest religious scriptures of Hinduism and which he kept on his person and will be very important in this story.

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Lord Brahma, the Hindu god of Creation with the Vedas in his right hand.

Humans were becoming immoral day by day and the Satya Yuga was close to ending. (This immorality is by the standards of an era when people were the most honest they ever were or will be. So, you know. Go figure.)  Right on schedule, Brahma decided it was time for his ‘daily’ slumber and as he started to close his eyes and go to sleep, he yawned and the horse-headed demon Hayagriva came out of his nose, stole the Vedas and went and hid at the bottom of the ocean, thinking that no one would find him there. (Can you blame him? 95 per cent of the Earth’s oceans are still undiscovered, to this day. It was a good plan, you know, apart from the thieving and stuff.) Vishnu, the God of Preservation was worried by this development because if the Vedas were stolen their knowledge could not be used in the next Yuga which was about to begin. Since it was his job to ensure the preservation(of knowledge) for the next era, it was time for Vishnu to take his first incarnation and come to Earth and that is where our story, truly, officially, begins. (Finally.)

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Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of Preservation

On Earth, there lived a man named Manu, who was very pious and devoted to Vishnu. He used to pray and perform penance to fulfil his lifelong dream of seeing Vishnu with his own eyes. One day, as he began his prayers at the river and took some water from it in his hands and was about to pour it back, he noticed a tiny fish in his hands. The fish was begging him to not put it back in the water as other bigger fish might eat him. (This is very ancient times, he can speak fish, its not a big deal) He decided to help the fish and took it to his house and put it in a small pot. When the fish outgrew the pot, he put it in a bigger one. Soon, it outgrew that pot as well and went on to outgrow every other pot in Manu’s home. So, he put the fish in the river. Then a bigger river. Then an even bigger one. Soon, this fish outgrew all the rivers and Manu put it in the ocean.

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When put in the ocean, the fish grew to the size of the ocean, a horn grew out of its head and it revealed itself to be Vishnu. Manu bowed in reverence and was overwhelmed to see his dream fulfilled. He asked him what the Lord wanted of him. Vishnu then told Manu that the Yuga was going to end in 7 days; there would be a great flood, and all life on earth would perish. He instructed him to build a big ship, take seeds of all the plants, male and female of all species of all the animals, and the Seven Sages on it. (The Seven Sages or Saptarishi are a big deal in Hindu mythology. They are considered the patriarchs of the Vedic religion) He also told him to bring the god of the snakes, Vasuki on the ship. (Did it remind you of a very famous story yet? If not, ‘Ill give you a hint. Think biblical.)Matsya avatar

Having given his instructions and completing one half of its mission on Earth the Matsya Avatar,a.k.a Lord Vishnu set off to the bottom of the ocean to find the demon Hayagriva and bring the Vedas back. That tale though is for the next part.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: This tale begins with the idea that time is cyclical. Do you agree or disagree? Let me know what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Perseus and Medusa(Part Three)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the myth of the demigod Perseus and the gorgon Medusa, today. This is the last part of a three-part series on Perseus and Medusa. If you haven’t read the previous parts, do go and read Part One and Part Two before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

Perseus’ story is quite the rarity in Greek mythology. Heroes are usually not happy or even, you know, alive at the end of their stories. Perseus falls in love, gets to marry her, she’s not related to him, no one opposes their match, he saves his mum, settles down in his new capital, has kids and lives a long, relatively happy life. Very few heroes, if any, get that. Think of any and all heroes you can; Orpheus fails at the last minute, Achilles dies and so on. After Perseus died, he and many characters from his story were also immortalised in the night sky and were made constellations by the gods. Perseus, Andromeda, King Cephus and Queen Cassiopeia are all featured among the stars. That’s positively delightful by Ancient Greek standards.

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Oedipus’ story was clearly a tragedy, for everyone in the story. But here, the only tragic character is the apparent villain, Medusa. And hence begin my arguments to express my firm belief that Medusa was never a villain and did not deserve what happened to her. Hear me out. Medusa was born mortal and pretty, by luck. She had nothing to do with that. It was not her fault that the sea god Poseidon got tempted by her beauty. It wasn’t her fault that Poseidon and Athena had a rivalry going and thus, Poseidon decided to impregnate her in Athena’s temple to spite her. And it goes without saying that she did not deserve to be turned into an ugly monster by Athena. Neither did she deserve to die as she did or for her severed head to be used as a weapon for time immemorial.

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Medusa by Caravaggio

Some people believe that Athena turned her into a monster so no man could ever do to Medusa what Poseidon did to her. Is that fair though? Athena took away her life and eventually helped her murderer kill her. She also mounted her head on her shield after clearly ruining her life. If we look at the story from Medusa’s point of view, it’s clearly a tragedy and there are not just one but two villains: Poseidon and Athena, whose rivalry ended up ruining Medusa.

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Poseidon and Athena’s rivalry

Now that we are on the topic of the gods, this story has a lot of them being, directly and indirectly, involved in the story. Let us start at the very beginning. Zeus was capable of turning into golden sparkly rain and impregnating Danae who was imprisoned for no fault of hers, but not capable of rescuing her in the first place. He left her pregnant and trapped, alone to fend against her father who literally imprisoned her to prevent this happening. (You know, I have an idea. Let us begin a Douchebag God count. Zeus makes 1 DG.) Even when they reached Seriphus and Polydectes was after Danae, he didn’t smite him or anything and let him torture her till Perseus came back from his quest. (A Big DG move)

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Zeus by Pierre Granier

We already talked about Poseidon a bit(and enough to earn him a spot in the DG list and make it 2) so let us continue from there. Not only did he possibly rape and impregnate Medusa, but he also did it in the temple of his sworn rival, to spite her and when Medusa ended up facing the consequences of it, he did nothing and was as unbothered as can be. He also set a sea monster on a country for something as silly as a queen being vain and punished common people for no fault of theirs. (Another big DG move)

Athena we have mostly talked about, but just to refresh your memory, she made Medusa a monster for no fault of hers, she helped Perseus kill her, and she put Medusa’s head on her shield after all this, shamelessly. (And that makes 3 DGs.) Need I go on? Hermes gets a special mention because he did help Perseus on his quest with Athena, so he becomes a DG by association. And that’s 4 DGs and excellent examples of Greek gods meddling whenever is convenient for them, as opposed to, at the beginning itself to not cause the very problems that they expect heroes to fix.

This story, like Oedipus’ also began with a prophecy and here too we saw the self-fulfilling nature of prophecies. Acrisius imprisoned his daughter to prevent the prophecy from coming true and as a result, made his grandson a demigod who was trained by the very best. He escaped Argos when he heard Perseus was coming back and ended up dying because of this decision. Perhaps if he had stayed put, he would have lived longer. Perhaps if his grandson knew him all along, he wouldn’t have died at his hands. It’s a lot of if’s but that’s all they are. I know it might not have changed things, but the truth of the matter is that in this story, as well as Oedipus’, characters made choices to prevent an event that ended up making the very event they dreaded come true, in classic Greek fashion.

And with that, we come to the end of our journey with Perseus and Medusa.

Until our next Greek adventure! (Or wherever we choose to go.)

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What were your thoughts on this series on Perseus and Medusa?Which myth should I do next? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Perseus and Medusa(Part Two)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the myth of the demigod Perseus and the gorgon Medusa, today. This is part two of a three-part series on Perseus and Medusa.

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Let’s catch back up with our hero. Perseus has spent a few days wandering in vain on his impossible quest. Why impossible, you ask? Remember what I said about the Gorgon’s Lair that becomes relevant later? This is the later we were waiting for. No mortal knew Medusa’s location. Fortunately for Perseus, he got what few heroes were privileged enough to get before. Help from the gods themselves.

Athena(The Goddess of Wisdom and the person who turned Medusa into a gorgon) and Hermes(The God of Travellers) decided to support Perseus on his quest and told him to seek the Graeae, the sisters of the gorgons, as they were the only ones who could tell him what he needed to know to be successful. The Graeae were three grey-haired monsters who shared an eye and a tooth between them. Perseus managed to eventually track them down and steal their eye and tooth to blackmail them into divulging the information he needed. ( I know. This was as weird a sentence to write as it was to read.)

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Perseus and the Graeae, by Edward Burne-Jones

The Graeae told him how to find the Hesperide Nymphs(Nymphs who lived in the Garden of the Hesperides), from whom he could obtain objects crucial to the completion of his quest and the location of the Gorgon’s Lair. The Hesperide Nymphs were actually pretty hospitable and gave him a bag to safely hold Medusa’s severed head and more importantly, Hades'(The God of the Dead) helm of darkness which could make him invisible. They also gave him the address of the Gorgons.Zeus(His dad, if you remember and King of the Gods) gave him a curved sword to uh, decapitate Medusa, Hermes lent him his winged sandals to fly to the Gorgon’s Lair at the end of the world and Athena gave him a reflective polished shield which will go on to be the hero of Perseus’ armoury. (It is important to note that Perseus is the rare hero who had so much help. Not many were so lucky.)

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Perseus armed by Mercury and Minerva, by Paris Bordone

Now armed with his repository of godly and magical items part of the Anti-Medusa squad, Perseus headed (Read flew on his winged sandals with the helm of darkness on his head, making him invisible and terrifying to any and all birds) to the Gorgon’s Lair. When he reached their cave, he found the three sisters fast asleep. Perseus used the reflective shield as a mirror(I told you it would be the hero item) to see Medusa without directly looking into her face and you know, avoid being turned to stone and stuff. He managed to get close enough to use the curved sword to land a fatal blow on Medusa’s throat. The minute he cut off Medusa’s head, from the drops of her blood sprung the winged horse Pegasus and the Chrysaor, a giant or a winged boar. It’s believed that those two were Medusa’s children with Poseidon.

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Perseus with the head of Medusa, by Benvenuto Cellini

He put Medusa’s head in the bag and was now running to escape from her two sisters who were now awake and furious to avenge their sister. Here, being invisible and able to fly helped out a great deal, and Perseus managed to escape the angry gorgons, who eventually gave up and decided to mourn their dead sister. And with that, Medusa was dead and Perseus was off with her head to fulfil his quest.

However, Medusa’s story does not end with her death. While Perseus was flying home, he passed Ethiopia, the kingdom of King Cephus. The queen, Cassiopeia, had claimed to be more beautiful than the sea nymphs, or Nereids(As you do), so Poseidon had punished the country by flooding it and plaguing it with a sea monster. (Poseidon doesn’t look great in this story, does he?)An oracle informed the King that the ill-will on his land would cease if he sacrificed his daughter Andromeda to the monster, which he did. (I hope, reluctantly) Perseus, passing by, saw the princess chained to a rock near the sea and fell in love with her. He turned the sea monster to stone by showing it Medusa’s head and afterwards married Andromeda. (Aw look. A happy ending. And no one is married to their mom or their sibling or something.)

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Perseus and Andromeda, by Rubens

Perseus and Andromeda then headed to Seriphus where Perseus came to offer Polydectes his, “gift”, fulfilling his quest. However, when Polydectes would not tell him where his mother was, Perseus pulled out the head of Medusa and turned Polydectes and his entire court to stone, just as he learnt that Polydectes had been mistreating his mother and had thrown her in the dungeon. He freed his mother, he returned all the magical items he had been given and presented Medusa’s head to Athena, as a thank you for all her help. (I mean, she made Medusa a monster in the first place sooooo, okay I’m not saying anything) She placed it on the centre of her shield, the aegis. All seemed well. (Uh oh)

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Athena’s Aegis

Perseus, along with Danae and Andromeda decided to go to his native Argos, to make peace with his grandfather Acrisius. (Remember him?)Upon hearing this, Acrisius, still painfully aware of the Oracle’s prophecy, left Argos and went to Larisa. (This would not turn out to be a good idea)Ironically, that’s precisely where Perseus headed on his way to Argos so that he could compete in the funeral games King Teutamides held in honour of his dead father. When Perseus threw a discus, it accidentally hit an old man on the head, killing him on the spot. As you might have guessed, that old man was none other than Acrisius, his grandfather; thus, the prophecy was fulfilled. (Dun dun dun. You can’t escape prophecy in ancient Greece, you’d think they would learn.)

He consequently left Argos as he was too ashamed of the crime he had committed unintentionally and founded Mycenae as his capital, becoming the ancestor of the Perseids, including Hercules. And with that, the story of Perseus comes to an end. And a relatively happy one, from Greek hero standards. More on that next time, stay tuned.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: This story involves many Greek Gods.How are you feeling towards them at the end? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

 

 

De-myth-ify: Perseus and Medusa(Part One)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the myth of the demigod Perseus and the gorgon Medusa, today. This is part one of a three-part series on Perseus and Medusa.

For the previous series of posts on Oedipus in the De-myth-ify series, click here.

This story, just like Oedipus’, is very typically Greek and begins with a prophecy. Acrisius, the king of Argos, was told by the Oracle of Delphi that his own grandson would kill him one day. (So, as you see, only a slight change in “grandness” from Laius’ predicament) Acrisius had only one daughter, Danae. Now, Acrisius was a reasonable guy and reacted reasonably, and decided to lock Danae up in a tall tower, away from the world, to ensure that there was no meeting or mating with people and consequently no childbearing in Danae’s future. (Laius understands. Family is hard, y’all. Especially in ancient Greece.)

However, it is common knowledge that Zeus has no chill. So, the king of the gods came to our damsel in distress in the most extra form of a golden shower through a crack in her roof and yet again, had a dalliance with a mortal which resulted in the hero of our story, the half-mortal half-god Perseus. Eventually, Acrisius caught on and realised that his plan of locking away his daughter forever did not work and he now had a demigod grandson to contend with. (Now now, at least Oedipus was fully mortal) He then proceeded to in the best dad move order both mother and child to be placed in a chest and thrown into the sea to die. (Seriously, this guy and Laius could have been best buds.)

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Danae,by Giovanni Battista.

Zeus, however, had no plans of letting them die and allowed the chest to reach safely to the island of Seriphus. Here, the chest was discovered by Dictys, the brother of the king Polydectes, and its occupants brought forth to him. Polydectes was not a great guy and he immediately wanted Danae to marry him and could not handle rejection. Dictys however, managed to conceal Danae and Perseus from him and allow them to stay on the island where Perseus received a hero’s education from Chiron the Centaur, teacher to heroes like Hercules, Achilles and Jason. (We like Dictys.What a great guy.)

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Eventually, Polydectes realised that Danae and Perseus had been saying in Seriphus all this time and realised that the only obstacle standing between him marrying Danae was her son Perseus, now a grown man who was very protective of her and would not allow her to be married to a god awful man like Polydectes against her will. (Seems reasonable, but we are talking about a man who refuses to see reason) Polydectes then had a genius idea that would allow him to deal with his problems once and for all, a la every teenager in a teen movie, by throwing a party.

Now, this party was not just some ordinary rager. It was a large banquet where it was customary for each guest to bring the host a gift. Perseus was unaware of this custom and asked Polydectes to name his gift and promised that he could not refuse. Polydectes finally had him in his trap and asked Perseus to bring him the head of the only mortal gorgon, Medusa. (Gasp!) And thus, Perseus set off on his dangerous quest, one which all heroes before him had been unsuccessful on and our story gets juicier.

But, wait. This is not just a one-character story, unlike Oedipus. It is now time for me to introduce the other character of our story, our “villain”, the monster Medusa. Medusa was one of the three Gorgons and the only mortal one among them. She was a beautiful woman with long flowing hair and a gorgeous face, unlike her siblings who were monsters by birth. This is the irony of the story of Medusa, for she eventually turned into the most feared and most awful monster of them all.

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Medusa was so beautiful that even the mighty sea god Poseidon could not resist her charms and impregnated her in the goddess of wisdom Athena’s temple. (Yikes.) Athena was livid and in her fury transformed Medusa into a hideous monster with bronze hands and wings of gold, like her sisters. Writhing snakes were entwining her head in place of hair. Her face was so hideous and her gaze so piercing that the mere sight of her was sufficient to turn a man to stone. (Damn Athena. You could have chilled a little.)And what of Poseidon, you ask? Nothing, he got off scot-free because he is immortal and couldn’t care less. So much for a mighty sea god, huh? Oh and also, she was confined to live in a cave with her sisters called the Gorgon’s Lair whose location was known to no mortal. (Remember this, this becomes relevant later.)

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The three gorgons at the Secession building in Vienna, Austria

And now, both our character’s timelines are caught up and here they are, Perseus on a reckless quest, Medusa with her stony gaze(Hehe) in her cave while their destinies are about to get a whole lot tangled. Get settled, the fun is just about to begin.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What do you think of the characters so far? Are there any favorites or least favorite ones? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 3)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part three of a three-part series on Oedipus. This continues from where part two left off. If you haven’t read the previous parts, do go and read Part one and Part two before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

Oedipus Rex has all the elements of a pretty classic Greek tragedy and is considered by many if not the greatest, one of the greatest Greek dramas ever written. The first in Sophocles’ Theban trilogy, I’m sure you’ll not argue with me when I say that the tale itself is pretty macabre. It has quite a few deaths; out of which two are suicides(Jocasta and the Sphinx), two are natural deaths(Polybus and of course, Oedipus himself) and god knows how many are murders(Laius, his charioteer, other people travelling with Laius, all of the Sphinx’s victims, the list goes on.) There is also a healthy dose of incest, patricide, possible intent to harm an infant, possible indirect infanticide, self-harm and what I’m positive is some sort of sadism(Or whatever you’d choose to call what the shepherd who dropped baby Oedipus off at Corinth, who knew everything did, by choosing to say nothing while Oedipus went off killing his dad and marrying his mom and then turning up at the very last minute to drop his dramatic reveal)

(Some of)The deaths in Oedipus Rex

This entire story banks on one of the most popular tropes of classic Greek dramas; the self-fulfilling nature of prophecies, seemingly triggered by its knowledge. Basically, the fact that the whole mess can almost always be traced to just one integral prophecy. If you’ll notice, whenever one of the characters finds out about the prophecy, they end up taking a drastic step which in their mind is preventing the prophecy but ends up ensuring that it comes to be. (Be it Laius trying to indirectly kill his child and ensuring his child wouldn’t recognise him in the future or Oedipus trying to go away from who he thought were his parents but actually ending up going towards his real parents and the many more times that it happens throughout the story, go on, read it again if you’d like. )

And before you fight me and say that the prophecy probably still would have happened, no matter what, I’ll have to tell you that I know that but still hear me out. What if Laius never knew about the prophecy and chose to raise his son himself and with love and then Oedipus would have at least certainly known who his parents were and would at least definitely not have married his mom even if the first half could not be averted. In my opinion, even the first half wouldn’t have happened simply if the characters did not know about the prophecy. Ah well, we can never know for sure, it is all speculation and it wouldn’t make for a good story, would it?

There is also the fact that if you look at every character, they are all victims of their fates, tied to their destiny. First, there’s Laius, cursed to fear his own child and live with the knowledge that his own child would be the cause of his death. Then there’s Jocasta, cursed to be widowed and to eventually marry her own son and beget his children. Then come, the King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, Oedipus’ adopted parents cursed to have no biological children and then to be denied time with their adopted child because of his fears due to a prophecy that never referred to them. There are so many more characters to go into but the bottom line is the same: everyone is a slave to their fate. I mean, the apparent hero of our tale, Oedipus has it the worst of all, cursed to perform incest and patricide, cursed because of performing them. Can he even be considered a hero then at all?

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The man of the hour himself: Sophocles

This is something that Sophocles did happen to acknowledge in his play and is considered one of the central themes of his story. I’d like to conclude our sojourn with this myth with the closing line of the play, a common Greek maxim, “No man should be considered fortunate until he is dead.”

Until our next Greek adventure! (Or wherever we choose to go)

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What were your thoughts on this series on Oedipus?Which myth should I do next? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 2)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part two of a three-part series on Oedipus. This continues from where part one left off. If you haven’t read it, do go and read Part one before you continue here.

The Sphinx would ask every person who encountered it the same riddle and upon getting the wrong answer would murder and devour them.(A bit of an overreaction, if you ask me) So, she asked Oedipus the riddle that many unfortunate souls before him had lost their lives to, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” Oedipus was a clever man, he thought carefully and did what no one else before him had done; he solved the riddle. I’ll let you take a second to think about it, try to see if your smarts measure up to Oedipus’. If you already know, shush, don’t spoil it for anyone else.

The Sphinx

Here is Oedipus’ answer: “Man-he crawls on all fours as a child, walks on two feet as an adult and uses a walking stick as an old man.” The Sphinx, in a very un-ladylike manner, was unable to handle her ego after her defeat and jumped off the rock it was sitting on and fell to its death. Hurray! The Sphinx was vanquished. Now Oedipus gets his prize! (Yikes.) The throne of his father(who, I have to remind you he killed) and his mother as his wife. Talk about tough luck.

And thus, Oedipus was crowned king and married Jocasta, both unaware of their true relationship and had four children: Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. He ruled well for many years, with his mom-wife by his side. Then one day, a terrible plague struck Thebes. Determined to cure his city, he sends his brother-in-law/uncle Creon to the Oracle at Delphi to find out the cause for it. Creon comes back to report that is the gods’ punishment for the killer of Laius was never brought to justice. (Just by the way, Oedipus is Laius’ killer. And he doesn’t know that.)

Oedipus then swears to find and punish the man responsible. He summons the blind prophet Tiresias to seek answers. At first, Tiresias refuses to answer but when forced, he points an accusing finger at Oedipus himself. (Damn, that’s a power move right there.) Unable to fathom how he could be Laius’ murderer he decides that Tiresias had been paid by Creon to blame Oedipus and steal his throne. This is where shit, finally, totally hits the fan.

 

 

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Tiresias, the blind prophet.

 

 

Jocasta in an attempt to comfort her husband-son, tells Oedipus that Laius was killed by bandits on the road and narrates the circumstances of her husband’s(her actual husband) death. Oedipus is extremely unnerved by the similarity between one of the encounters he had on the road and his mom-wife’s narration. He is understandably, shaken up and sends for that one servant of Lauis’ who survived that encounter.

Before the servant, however, a messenger from Corinth arrives informing him of Polybus’ death (From natural causes). Oedipus is visibly relieved to hear this as that meant he had evaded the first half of the prophecy(You wish Oedipus, you wish.) but fearing that the second half might still come to be, declines to attend the funeral. The messenger, however, tells him to not worry about that as Merope and Polybus were never his real parents. How does this messenger know that? Get ready for the most telenovela and soap opera-esque twist. This messenger is none other than the shepherd who dropped him off at Corinth as a baby all those years ago. (Mic drop.)

 

 

Oedipus Separating from Jocasta by Alexandre Cabanel

 

 

Hearing this and realising that the prophecy had, in fact, had its way, Jocasta flees to her chamber and hangs herself in despair. Oedipus however, still needs more proof and it walks right in as the servant who he summoned comes and verifies the horrifying truth: Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. When Oedipus realises what he has done, he tried to find Jocasta and finds her lifeless body. At this point, he takes two golden pins from her dress and blinds himself in his fury. He banishes himself from Thebes, as he had promised to do to the killer of Laius and lives a long, miserable, guilt-ridden life, to eventually die, as all mortals do. And with that, we come to the disturbing end of Oedipus’s story. ( For real though, thank all the greek gods we’re finally here. The man has been through enough.)

To be continued.

THIS POST’ QUESTION: This is the story of characters with terrible luck.Who do you think has it worst of them all and why? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

De-myth-ify: Oedipus (Part 1)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, the Sophoclean tragedy, Oedipus Rex(also called Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King) today. This is part one of a three-part series on Oedipus.

Oedipus’ story begins in typical Greek fashion, with a prophecy. When Laius, the king of Thebes decided to consult the Oracle at Delphi(It was believed that Apollo, the god of prophecy spoke through the Oracle who sat in the ancient sanctuary in Delphi) on whether he and his wife would ever have a son. What he learned, however, was that any son they have is destined to kill Laius and marry Jocasta, Laius’ wife.

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The Oracle at Delphi. (I found this image at ancient-origins.net )

Then, Laius reacted in a way that would be expected of him, he avoided his wife’s bed and decided to do away with any and all hopes for children. However, in what is truly the ultimate millennial move all the way back in ancient Greece, alcohol got the best of him. Jocasta got pregnant and in 9 months, the drunken mistake(read: the baby) was here.

Some believe that Laius pierced the baby’s ankles so that it wouldn’t even be able to crawl, let alone hurt him. (Oedipus means swollen foot in ancient Greek) This is, however, a pretty disputed fact among researchers. This is also where I remind you that killing family was one of the biggest sins in ancient Greece and you would certainly end up cursed and facing the wrath of the gods. This is why Laius, that little sneak, found a loophole in this whole shebang and instead asked some shepherd to drop his baby off at the mountains to die.

The shepherd, just a regular dude was obviously not quite that cold-hearted and handed the baby to a second shepherd passing his infanticidal duties on to on him. This shepherd, also not an infanticidal maniac and a Corinthian, could not bring himself to leave him to die. Instead, he took him to the childless King and Queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope, who took the baby in and raised him as their own.

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The Finding Of Oedipus, a 17th/18th-century painting depicting the adoption of baby Oedipus by King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth

So, Oedipus grew up, believing himself to be the prince of Corinth, that Polybus and Merope were his parents and blissfully unaware of the extraordinary circumstances that brought him to Corinth. One day, a drunkard told Oedipus that his parents were not his birth parents and you know, basically his whole life was a lie and all that and Oedipus obviously chose to give a drunk man’s word merit and investigate this little rumour. He ended up at Delphi, much like his father before him(you know Laius, his actual dad) seeking answers. This is where he heard the prophecy that had defined his life from even before he existed: he would kill his father and marry his mother. This is also where the intermission would come if this was a movie.

Then, Oedipus reacted in a way that would be expected of him, he decided to head far far away from Corinth and head north towards, you guessed it, Thebes. Along the way, at one point, his charioteer and another charioteer coming from the opposite direction got into a fight over who had the right to pass first. This little squabble ended with Oedipus killing the other charioteer and person he was carrying, who, surprise surprise, was none other than his actual daddy, the genius King of Thebes, Laius and just like that half the prophecy was fulfilled. Oh and also, a servant of Laius’ was the only survivor of Oedipus’ wrath. Keep that in mind. Moving on.

The Murder of Laius by Oedipus, by Joseph Blanc.

Oedipus was finally almost at his birthplace, Thebes. It was here that he encountered the legendary Sphinx with its head of a human, body of a lion and the wings of an eagle, an encounter that is part of popular lore and is pretty well known. The lesser-known fact of that story is that the Sphinx had been plaguing Thebes for a long time and it had been decreed that the one who managed to relieve Thebes of this terror would be crowned the king and get the widowed queen’s hand in marriage. I’m sure you can guess what happened next but I still have a story to tell and hence comes part two of this story.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What do you think of Laius’ reaction to finding out about the prophecy ? Do you think it is cold or do you think it is justified,given the circumstances? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!