Thursday, December 27, 2012

TFBT: Helen's Handmaiden

Aethra was there when Paris met Helen.  She was there when the sword fell from Menelaus' hand and Helen welcomed back into her bossom.  Aethra raised Helen, raised Theseus and raised her own great-grandson.  She was a princess in Greece and a slave in Asia Minor.  Like Nestor she witnessed three generations of men come and go upon the face of the other.

The story of Aethra starts as such stories often do with a woman being carried away in a chariot pulled by winged horses.  On the far left out of view are her grandfather Oenomaus and his charioteer Myrtilus in pursuit of her grandparents Pelops and Hippomada.  These sorts of contests usually don’t end well for someone.  If you wonder where Pelops charioteer is; Sphairos falls into the sea at Lesbos and drowns in route to the contest.[i]  Poseidon’s favorite; Pelops finally won with a little help advice.  Oddly the winning scheme didn't come from Aphrodite, the goddess of Love.  The ,  as it ends up, bad advice came  from Sphairos’ ghost.  Aethra’s grandparents go on to raise myriad sons.  Of particular note in Aethra’s life were her uncles Hippachlas and Trozeon along with her father Pittheous.  For a family with such a remarkable large number of boys, those sons were remarkable in their inability to raise legitimate, un-cursed male heirs.  Pittheus married his niece Alcmene (a common practice in Greek mythology). On her father’s side Alcmene was a niece of the legendary Gorgophone, daughter of Perseus, tamer of the winged horse Pegasus.  

An image on a vase showing Aethra’s rescue by her grandsons show a small woman, but maybe the weight of 90 years and decades of slavery weighed upon her shoulder.  Her father was the king of Hyperea and Anthea, which he merged into a new city, called Trozeon in honor of his brother.  In later years there would be a temple to Artemis the Savior.  In this temple are altars to the gods said to rule under the earth. It is here that they say Semele was brought out of Hell by Dionysus, and that Heracles dragged up the Hound of Hell.  (Pausanias) So surely she was once a beautiful princess made more beautiful by the fact that she was her father’s sole heir.  (Her sister Henioche doesn’t seem to get mentioned much.)  As a matter of fact, Bellerphon, the hero made famous by also riding about on the winged horse Pegasus, courted and became engaged to Aethra.  But prior to the marriage he “accidently” killed a kinsman and went into exile. 

At which point along comes King Aegeus of Athens. On his way home from Delphi, he stopped at Troezen, a city southwest of Athens.  Pittheus got Aegeus drunk on unmixed wine and put him to bed with Aethra. The goddess Athena; the patroness of Athens sent Aethra a dream.  Following the instructions of Athena, Aethra left the sleeping Aegeus and waded across to the island of Sphairia that lay close to Troezen’ s shore. There she poured a libation to Cillus the charioteer of Pelops, whose real name, according to a Troezenian tradition, was Sphaerus. His tomb was shown near the town of Cilla in the neighborhood of the temple of Apollo. (Paus. v. 10. § 2; Strab. xiii. p. 613.) As though she was the eponymous nymph of the place.  Aethra bedded the sea-god Poseidon.  Still in the eponymous mode Aethra named the island Sphaera Hiera (sacred) and had a temple built there to the goddess Athena Apaturia.  She established the custom in Troezen that girls dedicated their girdles to Athena when they got married.   Now Aethra’s son was heir to the thrones of Troezen, Athens and the islands of Sphairia and Kalavria.[ii]

When the product of those unions, Theseus, reached maturity, Aethra showed him a huge rock.  It served as a primitive altar to Strong Zeus.  There the tokens his mortal father left behind were hidden; the proof of Theseus’s birthright.   At some point Aethra marries her Uncle Hippalcus.  He was one of the Argonauts.    The product of that marriage was "ox-eyed" Clymene, thus half-sister to Theseus and a distant relative to Menelaus. [iii] In Euripides’ Suppliants it is Aethra that intercedes on behalf of the unburied and convinces Theseus to enter the wars at Thebes on the side of righteousness. 

Aethra reappears in the mythic storyline thirty years later Theseus and his best friend Peirithous decided they needed new wives.  They decided they deserved daughters of Zeus.  On the left sans winged chariot, are the two heroes carrying off Helen daughter of Tyndareus, the most beautiful woman every born on earth.  Also in the picture is Corone, the eponymous nymph of Messenia.  For Perithous’ bride they chose Persephone, Queen of the Dead.  Clearly there was some unmixed wine involved in this decision making.  While they were gone on this expedition, Theseus handed the under-age Helen off to his mother Aethra’s care. And set them up in Ancient Aphidna, which was one of the twelve ancient towns of Attica, then ruled by earth-born Aphidnus.  Then off to Hades they went.  The involvement of Persephone once again invokes the image of a woman being carried off in a chariot drown by winged horses, these particular horses being black ones flying up out of the chasm that formed beneath the girl’s feet.  As, I said, such races don’t end up well of someone.  Theseus and Peirithous spent a lot longer time in Hades that expected.  

As Persephone spent some time in the realm of Hades, called Hades, so Helen spent time in the realm of King Aphidnus named Aphidna.  Here Aethra began her Hecate-like existence as foster-mother, companion and slave to Helen.  Just as Dionysus had Polymnus to point out the entrance to Hades in Troezen, so Helen’s brothers had Decelme to show where their sister was hidden.  When Aphidna fell her brothers brought Helen back to Sparta, with Theseus’s mother Aethra and a sister of Peirithous as slaves. Along with Aethra’s daughter Clymene.[iv]  According to Pausanias’ description of the chest of Cypselus [Pausanias 5.19.3] “Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus, lies thrown to the ground under the feet at Helen. She is clothed in black, and the inscription upon the group is an hexameter line with the addition of a single word: The sons of Tyndareus are carrying of Helen, and are dragging Aethra from Athens

She reappears to our view when Alexander arrives at Sparta. Ovid quotes Helen says” Æthra and Clymene, my faithful companions and counselors. “ and suggests they aided in her elopement.  (P. Ovidius Naso, The Epistles of Ovid).  Aethra’s grandson Acamas and his brother  Demophoon were sent,  prior to the launch of  the “thousand ships”  to demand the surrender of Helen.  During his stay at Troy Acamas won the affection of Laodice, daughter of Priam and begot by her a son, Munitus.  Munitus was raised by his great-grandmother Aethra .[v]  Homer mentioned Aethra and Clymene accompanying Helen to the Scaean Gate [Iliad 3.139) Visit here for more on Helen

Pausanias’ mentioned that when Troy fell, Aethra with a shaven head, snuck to the Greek camp, and was recognized by her grandsons Demophoon and Acamas.  With his sister-in-law’s approval Agamemnon released Aethra and her daughter from bondage (Paus. x. 25.7-8)   Munitus, was killed by the bite of a snake while hunting at Olynthus in Thrace.( Parthenius of  Nicaea) while his family visited the Bisaltae on the lower reaches of the Strymon River.  Surely he too was buried with heroic honors. [vi]

Aethra and her daughter Clymene returned to Athens in triumph accompanied by Menestheus leader of the Athenians at Troy . Her grandson Acamas accepted the crown of Athens shortly thereafter.

( Corone tries to free Helen carried by Theseus. On the left side Pirithous, pot by Euthymides, 2308 Munich,  Pelops and Hippodamia from Charles Mills Gayley, The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1893) 171)

An updated version of this article can be found at Hour 25.

i] Cillas, the charioteer of Pelops, though Troezenius gives his name as Sphaerus, died on the way to Pisa, and appeared to Pelops by night, begging that he might be duly buried. Pelops took pity on him and burnt* his body with all ceremony, raised a huge mound in his honor, and built a chapel to the Cillean Apollo near it. He also named a town after him. This dutiful attention did not go unrewarded. Cillas appeared to Pelops again, and thanked him for all he had done, and to Cillas also he is said to have owed the information by which he was able to overthrow Oenomaus in the famous chariot race which won him the hand of Hippodamia. 
 Greek and Roman Ghost Stories by Lacy Collison-Morley, St. John’s College, Oxford. 
[ii] Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 33. 1 :
"The Troezenians possess islands, one of which is near the mainland, and it is possible to wade across the channel. This was formerly called Sphairia . . . In it is the tomb of Sphairos, who, they say, was charioteer to Pelops."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 33. 1
[iii] Homer, Iliad, 3. 144
[v] Dictionary of Greek and roman biography.
[vi] Surely he was buried with heroic honors like the Argonaut Mopsus bitten by a serpent born of Medusa blood in Libya (Argonautica I, 65-68 and 1502-1536);   the Arcadian King Aepytis. He is said to have been killed during the chase on Mount Sepia by the bite of a venomous snake and mentioned by Homer ( Pausanias, viii. 4. § 4, 16. § 2), or Canopus, the helmsman of Menelaus, who on his return from Troy died in Egypt, in consequence of the bite of a snake, and was buried by Menelaus on the site of the town of Canobus, which derived its name from him. (Strab. xvii. p. 801;.)  or the child Opheltes  crushed by a serpent when his nurse looked for water and afterwards honored as Archemoros with the Nemean games.

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