Sunday, January 19, 2014

TFBT: Before and After the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

“I loved her better than myself, but after obtaining possession the balance (swung the other way)”  paraphrase from  The Memoirs of Casanova,
 Chapter XIX

Quoting an eighteenth century adventurer might seem an odd start to a classical study.  But, when studying seduction, who would be a better reference.  It is clear in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite that the mighty goddess will say whatever it takes to consummate her Zeus given passion for the Trojan prince Anchises. Traditional scholarship assumes that Anchises is being honest in his interactions with the disguised goddess.  In this paper I propose that Anchises exaggerates and lies just as much as golden Aphrodite and for the same reason.  

I Loved Her Better Than Myself

After a long preamble and scene setting the action starts around line 81 with “She stood before him, the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, looking like an unwed maiden in size of length and appearance.”  Clearly she didn’t want to scare off the royal shepherd, so she began her seduction of the Trojan by disguising her appearance. 

At 91”Seized with love, Anchises said to her: “Hail, my Lady, you who come here to this home, whichever of the blessed ones you are”  (Same sort of flattery that liar Odysseus uses on the fair-faced maiden Nausicaa.  Both men flatter the young woman out in the middle of nowhere by suggesting she is Artemis.  Odyssey 6:145)  Anchises then makes a lengthy guessing about which of the goddesses she is; sort of a descending scale of important goddesses in the Trojan Pantheon. “Artemis or Leto or golden Aphrodite or Themis of noble birth or bright-eyed Athena (95) Or perhaps you are one of the Kharites, you who have come here…Or you are one of those Nymphs who range over beautiful groves, (Dryads) or one of those Nymphs who inhabit this beautiful mountain, (Oreads) and the fountainheads of rivers (Oceanides and Naiads)  and grassy meadows. (Leimonides).  Then he pours on the flattery ( 100) “ For you, on some high peak, in a spot with a view going all round, I will set up an altar, and I will perform for you beautiful sacrifices”  Then speaking like some ancient city’s founding father flirting with eponymous nymph  he ask “Grant that I become a man who is distinguished among the Trojans. Make the genealogy that comes after me become a flourishing one. And make me (105) live a very long life and see the light of the sun, blessed in the midst of the people. “

At line 110, in order to keep up appearance the disguised deity says, “No, I am a mortal. The mother that bore me was a woman. My father is Otreus… The nursemaid who brought me up in the palace was a Trojan.11 Ever since I was a small child, 115 she brought me up, … That is why I know your language as well as my own...the Argos-killer [Hermes], abducted me, … He carried me over many fields of mortal humans …And he [Hermes] said that I, in your bed, … would be called your lawfully-wedded wife, and that I would give you splendid children."   Hmm, let see beautiful wealthy princess falls from Heaven as a gift to Anchises from the gods. She conveniently speaks his language, is lovely, alone and a great distance from father and brothers.  And that horn-dog Hermes delivers her with her virginity intact.  If Anchises believes this he's not thinking with his noos or thumos

Line 145 ; “If you are mortal, and if a woman was the mother who gave birth to you, and if Otreus is your father, … and if you are to be called my wife for all days to come…". Does he hesitate out of respect or for fear of the bolt that Iason got?  (See Calypso at Odyssey 5:116)  or out of wisdom like Diomedes (Iliad 6:122)  then it is impossible for any god or any mortal human (150) to hold me back, right here, from joining with you in making love right now, on the spot - not even if the one who shoots from afar, Apollo himself, takes aim from his silver bow and shoots his arrows that bring misery. Then, O Lady who looks like the gods, I would willingly, once I have been in your bed, go down into the palace of Hades below.”  What player hasn’t used the lie that they would die for their lady love.

After, the Balance Swung the Other Way          

At Line 172; “Now that her skin was again beautifully covered over, the resplendent goddess stood by the bed, and the well-built roof-beam - her head reached that high up”. Then she awakes her slumbering lover presumably to tell him about his son,  “I got myself a child beneath my waistband, having slept with a male mortal." However she gets interrupted when he complains (188) “…don’t let me become disabled  don’t let me live on like that among humans! Please, take pity! I know that no man is full of life, able,  if he sleeps with immortal goddesses".

Traditionally, it is assumed that Anchises worries about being "unmanned" by the experience.  Nowhere else in Ancient Greek literature is Anchises' concern shared by other heroes.  Maybe a close reading further along can shed light on his concern.  As a matter of fact the goddess says, "You should have no fear of that I would do any kind of bad thing to you,(195) or that any of the other blessed ones would. For you are philos indeed to the gods."  She continues by swearing to fulfill his original request (104)  “And you will have a philos son, who will be king among the Trojans. And following him will be generations after generations for all time to come. "  

Aphrodite goes on to explain what the results could be for sleeping with a goddess.  Obviously he could get the thunderbolt if he goes around bragging about bedding the daughter of Zeus.

 The other option is what happen to his cousin Tithonus  and great-uncle Ganymede ; "together with the immortal ones (with) the gods in the palace of Zeus… a wonder to behold, given his share of timē by all the immortals, "   Aside from the threat of a thunderbolt, the only un-manning mentioned is becoming no longer a man, but a god.  Aphrodite is preaching to the choir here.  This sort of thing happens a lot to Trojan princes, for example Alexander, that seducer of another daughter of Zeus.   The fame of the horse rearing Troy is based on the horses descended from a set sent by Zeus to King Tros to compensate for the loss of Ganymede.  And Tithonus' sons will come to Troy in its time of need.  So Anchises must know that the second option is the likely reward for a Trojan prince who sleeps with a goddess.  Unfortunately, things didn’t work out too well for cousin Tithonus.  When his lover Eos, Titaness of the Dawn, asked that he receive endless life, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, too.  As a consequence, to Tithonus   "hateful old age was pressing hard on him, with all its might, and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up,..and he has no strength at all, ". I suggest that this is the unmanning that Anchises fears.  He knows from family lore that he had a good chance that he "would be immortal and ageless, just like the gods." And he took his best shot at attaining it. But Aphrodite’s heartless response was “If you could only stay the way you are, in looks and constitution, staying alive as my lawfully-wedded husband… But now wretched old age will envelop you, “

Their son will be raised by some of the long-lived nymphs Anchises had listed earlier.  Aphrodite will bring the child, Aeneas, to Troy someday for his father to raise.  One last warning to be discrete and the goddess is gone.

In Summary

Before, in order to seduce Anchises, Aphrodite appears to him as a beautiful, rich virgin alone in the woods. In order to flatter the “maiden” he, just like Odysseus, compares her to a goddess.  In order to tempt Anchises she tells him she is far from her father and fated for her bed. Anchises hesitates only a moment then leads her to his bed, their mutual seduction complete.

Afterwards, Aphrodite stays long enough to tell the mortal they will have a son.  Anchises makes a backhanded request for endless life and eternal youth.  Aphrodite says not.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TFBT: Doubly Odd Heracles

 I am participating in Hour 25.  It is  a project sponsored by The Center for Hellenic studies for graduates of "The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours" (H24H)  H24H in turn is a massive online open classroom sponsored by Harvard University via edX.  The third run of the course will be coming soon.   This week we study Heracles by Euripides

Opening Scene

Euripides’ play; “Heracles” portrays the deaths of Heracles’ wife Megara (daughter of Creon) and their three young sons.  The play starts with them and Heracles’ father sitting at Zeus’ altar, the two adults preserving the boys beneath their “wings” “like the parent bird that puts her young under her.” Afflicted Megara laments.  The poor old man trembles with age, his languid nerves without vigor.   He tries to calm her with platitudes.  He regrets his age and the spent strength of his former youth that might save them all.   (Almost exactly like the opening scene of Euripides’, Heracleidae ) Heracles earthly father Amphitryon and Heracles’ wife dress themselves and the young boys in the dark robes and ornaments of death.” 

Lycus Jr.

The usurper oppressing them is a character referenced only by Euripides, Lycus II of Thebes.   Emily A. McDermott[i]   argues that Euripides gives his knowing audience an odd little wink at the introduction of this character by the use of the Ancient Greek work “houtos” and words of double meaning.    (See Nagy’s comments on houtos and ainos. [ii])  Lycus (wolf) is clearly a straw-man.  The part is barely a minor character.  This two dimensional character is so dastardly drawn that no one in the audience or on the stage regrets him vanishing from the story line when Heracles returns.    

Double Lives

While they dress the chorus laments that good men aren’t given two lives to distinguish them from bad.  Sort of an odd conversation to be having at that moment.  Odder still because in the Ancient Greek religion the “good”, that is those initiated into the mysteries were promised a life here and a life in the world to come. See Nagy’s comment below.  Heracles returns from the dead at that moment.  I did a double take at the conversation with his father. 

Amphitryon “Did you indeed to Hades’ house de­scend, son?        610

Herakles; And dragged the triple-headed dog to light.

Amphitryon Subdued with a fight, or by the goddess given?

Herakles With a fight: I was lucky enough to see the mysteries.”

At the Eleusian Mysteries they taught people how to dog wrestle?  Or was it how to bake poisoned honey cakes? Neither answer seems right.  Could it be that Euripides intends for his audience to understand something else?  Was this a nod to the secret of the Eluisian Mysteries where the double life denied by the play is promised to the initiated?  In Professor Nagy’s informal comments he suggests (659ff) “This dramatized attitude reveals a poetically-created misunderstanding of what “really” happens to heroes after they die, how they are resurrected to a state of immortalization.”  Back to our story; Heracles returns from the dead. (Is this again a nod by the poet to the secret promised life for the initiated?)  His father, wife and children already ritually dead are freed from death.  (Double life again.)


Ripped Apart and Eaten by Dogs


The two men set up the ambush in which Heracles states he will rip off Lycus’ “unholy head and hurl it to the hungry dogs”Hmm, ripped apart and eaten by dogs this sort of thing seems to happen a lot to the Theban royal family.  Prince Actaeon was torn apart by this own pack thanks to Artemis. (Eurip. Bacch. 320) On the exact same spot King Pentheus (Bacchae) was ripped apart and eaten by his mother and aunts as arranged by Dionysius.  In another life Prince Dionysius was ripped apart and eaten by Titans thanks to Hera. [iii] Legend has it that Euripides died the same way.


As to the impending ambush the chorus sings, You should do nothing with violence, or you shall suffer violence (215) when the god shall change the direction of the winds.”  This bodes ill for both “kings”.


Heracles slays Lycus off stage.  During the ritual to purify his home Heracles goes mad and slays the last of the Theban royal family in a Bacchic frenzy. “He shakes his locks, and rolls, in silence his distorted Gorgon eyes, his breathing is not balanced like a bull.  Dreadful in the assault he roars, and calls the Stygian Furies, he howls with noisy fury, like dogs rushing on the hunt.“  (ff870)  Sort of like Actaeon’s dogs and Pentheus’ mother with her “foaming mouth and wildly rolling eyes,. (Bacchae 225)    Although in this case, Heracles used a bow and arrow like Artemis and Apollo did while slaughtering the children of Niobe, an earlier queen of Thebes. (Homer, Iliad 24. 602)


Heracles awakens to discover himself tied to a pillar.  His father Amphitryon is his sole surviving family member.  (Interestingly Amphitryon is neither a Theban royal nor Theban born.)  Come, let me veil my head in darkness…” he begs his father in shame and grief.


King Theseus Arrives


Theseus King of Athens shows up at this point.  Theseus often shows up at this point in Ancient Greek tragedies, because the performances are in Athens and the poets are playing to the crowd.  Hence Theseus is always portrayed as saintly, knightly and wise. His conversation with Amphitryon and eventually Heracles consists of proverbs and platitudes.  He asked Amphitryon that Heracles be unveiled. [iv]

Amphitryon, Zeus and the Woman

In the stilted conversation that follows with Theseus, Heracles says “ I am the son of a man who incurred the guilt of blood, before he married my mother Alcmena, by slaying her aged sire.”  Up to this point in the play, Heracles is universally considered the son of Zeus.  So in my initial reading I thought Heracles was talking about Zeus, who incurred the rage of the erinnyes by overthrowing his wife’s (Hera’s) sire.  Rather an obtuse way to describe Cronus’ and Zeus’ relationship, but continued reading and then re-reading proved that Heracles meant Amphitryon, “for thee rather than Zeus do I regard as my father.”  As to compound the equating of Amphitryon and Zeus, Theseus adds later, Have they not intermarried in ways that law forbids? Have they not thrown fathers into ignominious chains to gain the sovereign power?”

At one point in the play Amphitryon says of Zeus; “Mortal as I am, in virtue   I surpass you, a mighty god;Nagy notes (342ff) a god-hero antagonism here. God-hero antagonisms are a love/hate relationship.  The love aspect five times is referenced by Amphitryon’s “idle boasts, scattered broadcast”  that Zeus shared his marriage-bed.  (Starting with the play’s opening line, then lines 148, 340, 343 and 800).    Amphitryon’s bragging of an intimate relationship with Zeus is seen nowhere else in Ancient Greek literature; “the one who shared his bed with Zeus,” “ Zeus once shared thy bed,” “  come by stealth to my marriage-bed” “I share my wife with you.”  “O marriage bed shared by two One a mortal, the other Zeus,” 

Towards the end of the play Heracles laments, (ff1307)  “To such a goddess (Hera) who would pay his vows? That for a woman, jealous of the bed of Zeus, has crushed the innocent”.    What “woman” is Heracles the most masculine of Greek heroes referring too?  There is no mention of Heracles’ mother Alceme suffering abuse from Hera in the play.  In point of fact Hera never abuses her husband’s mistresses.    Leto (HH to Apollo), Semele[v] and Io[vi] were all pregnant when Hera persecuted them.  After they gave birth, Hera’s wrath subsides because she is actually targeting her husband’s bastard children.  Hera’s hatred of Heracles is natural of a queen trying to prevent potential heirs depriving her own children of their birthright.  The crushed innocent in the play include the “woman” Megara and three little boys.  Who is the woman?  Who is it in Zeus’ bed that rouses Hera’s jealousy?  Robert Graves[vii] and everyone on the internet say that Amphitryon means "harassing either side".  It is too easy to give the phrase a sexual connotation of bisexuality.  However, bisexuality explains Amphitryon’s overly sexualized references to Zeus and unveils the bedmate that roused Hera’s jealousy.


The End

The play ends with Theseus taking Heracles away with him, promising honors and sacrifice in years to come.  Heracles leaves his father behind to bury the dead, promising to send for the old man. 



[i] Transactions of the American Philological Association 121 (1991) 123-132 DOUBLE MEANING AND MYTHIC NOVELTY IN EURIPIDES' PLAYS
[ii] The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours”
[iii] William Smith.  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. London.
[iv]   1215 referring to the veil o'r Heracles’ face , Theseus says of it “No darkness has a cloud so black,”  Amphitryon speaks to Heracles; ‘’’ My son, remove that mantle from thine eyes… a counterpoise to weeping is battlingfor the mastery. In suppliant wise I entreat thee, as I grasp thy beard, thy knees, thy hands…O my child! Restrain thy savage lion-like temper, for thou art rushing forth on an unholy course of bloodshed” A wise precaution if one considers how vicious dark veiled Demeter was in her grief.  (Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter)
[v] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 26-27
[vi] Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 561-609
[vii] The Greek Myths

Friday, January 3, 2014

TFBT: Nephele the Cloud Goddess

Nephele was the cloud goddess, because in Ancient Greek literature, she is the only goddess referred to as a cloud and the only cloud to be given a name.  In fact she was a nymph; an Oceanide, one of the three thousand daughters of the Titan Oceanus.   (Aristophanes, Clouds 264) 

If the Ocean is her father you might think that Nephele was a goddess of the briny deep, best represented by the deep swell and breaking wave.  But, to our surprise the ancients thought of Father Oceanus as the great freshwater river surrounding the land masses.  He was the source of all the springs that pushed from the bountiful earth and all the sweet rain that fell from heaven. 

Many of Nephele’s sisters proudly bore names reminiscent of the clouds at sunset like Ianthe; violet, Electra; amber, Rhode; rose and Chryseis; golden.  (ref.  Among her sisters were Metis; the goddess of wisdom and Styx by whom the gods swore their greatest oaths.   They famously visited their cousin Prometheus during this imprisonment.  (Aeschylus Prometheus Bound)  Many oceanides were the eponymous nymphs of the countryside about their sacred spring and married the founding father of local myth.  Hence, Nephele ended up wedding Athamas, King in Boeotia. 

Add The Oceanides visiting Prometheus
by Sir Joseph Noëlcaption

Many goddesses had no interest in raising mortal children, so like Aphrodite (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite) and the Nereid Thetis (Iliad) she left her children behind.  Unfortunately, she left them in care of Athamas' next wife who wished to get rid of them.  Nephele, found out, sent a monster to rescue them; a winged ram with golden fleece which carried them away.   

Another story about Nephele involves a mortal king named Ixion. Ixion slew his father-in-law, left his wife and young son Pirithous and fled to Olympus for purification by Zeus.  In those days, such fugitives stayed with the king who purified him and became one of his warriors. 

It escaped no one’s notice that hot-blooded Ixion developed a fancy for Zeus’ wife Hera.  To test out the theory Zeus disguised Nephele as wife and provided an opportunity of Ixion to betray his lust.  Ixion immediately raped Nephele and just as immediately was tossed into Hades for endless punishment.  As Deborah Lyons points out in Gender and Immortality,The beds of the gods are always fruitful.   So, Nephele gave birth again, this time to Centaurus, who was either a centaur or the father of the centaurs.  In either case the centaurs became bitter foes with their brother Pirithous.

There is one more adventure Nephele might have taken part in.  The lyric poet Stesichorus of Sicily wrote an insulting poem about Helen of Troy around 600 BC.  As a result Helen blinded him and sent a seer to explain the truth about her life and the Trojan war.  He regained his sight when he rewrote the poem, explaining that Helen never actually visited Troy.  Instead the gods fashioned a phantom to stand in for Helen while she slumbered away the ten years in Egypt awaiting her husband.  Robert Graves in The Greek Myths, says the phantom was fashioned from a cloud.  

 Could it be that the Achaeans and Trojans fought and died for Nephele?

  Image thanks to NYPL Digital Gallery