Saturday, March 26, 2016

TFBT They Were All Gods

My friend Maya said something the other day that I did not exactly relate to, but could not articulate what I was thinking.  She said regarding characters in Greek mythology, “I am more interested in the weak individuals who keep their minds independent and struggle to be free.”  My initial thought is that I can relate, specifically thinking about Achilles and Demeter who sat quietly in their tents sulking,  until they got their way.  But, that's not quit right is it? Their response is meek, its affect it catastrophic; Most of the Achaeans would have died in Achilles case (Iliad 1. 386) and the tribes of men starved to death in Demeter's. (Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter) These were powerful characters.  But aren't they all?


Maya's Law states that "Zeus Doesn't Like Real Women!"  More accurately stated "Olympian males prefer Ionian and barbarian women." Maya's  points to the fact that by the end of the Heroic Age pretty much ever mortal had a little ichor flowing through their veins.  I am suggesting that at the right place and time most everyone in Greek mythology is a god-like daemon.  




At Mecone, god and man  alike were granted their powers, prerogatives and privileges.  And no god may thwart another's rights 

  • So if you are the mighty Aphrodite you don't want to show off your divine power on the field of battle ( Iliad 5.334)
  • But, Ino the women-turned-goddess of drowning sailors could rescue the doomed and drowning Odysseus (Odyssey 3.337) with no apparent concern for the wrath of Poseidon. (Odyssey 1.20) as did the unnamed river god of P.... (3.450) and the P....  (8.565. ). 
  • The sea nymph Thetis was apparently the goddess of divine rescue (Homer, Iliad 18.369, 6.135, 1.393 ). So she could rescue Zeus from the rebel Olympians and they could not lift a hand (nor apparently their voices) to stop her.



I am thinking of Macaria,[i] Menippe & Metioche[ii] and Chthonia[iii] princesses who sacrificed their lives to forestall the doom of their people.  For all the appearance of weakness and powerlessness these women have the power to be the savioress or destructrix of their worlds.  If she exercises that power she probably receives heroic honors and presumably a place on the Isle of the Blest; 


"There fair-haired Rhadamanthus [565] reigns, and men lead an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Okeanos breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men. "  (Homer, Odyssey 4.565)


The counter argument to this is of course Antigone (see play of the same name by Sophocles). This princess of Thebes "sacrificed" herself in a failed attempt to give her brother proper funeral and save her city from the pollution that was bound to occur with all those dead bodies outside the seven gates. But Antigone was not weak and powerless. She was a very strong personality with a powerful uncle as protector.  In fact she did not fail in her quest.  Five minutes after her death her arguments (and an angry mob) convinced Creon to bury the dead.  As Aphrodite's power lies in love not war, just as clearly Antigone's godlike daemonic powers laid in persuasion not sacrifice.  If she and Haemon had waited a few more minutes this would be clearer.  Or as the war-widows did in The Suppliants by Euripides, she could have gone to Athens and used her skills in persuasion to convince Aethra and Theseus to aid her.  




Slaves, like Eumaeus the swineherd and Philoetius the cowherd, are considered weak and powerless (in the face of injustice,) but the Suitors might disagree with that.  (Odyssey 22.200-204) 


Abducted Women


Andromache hears her husband knowingly paint a dreadful picture of the fate awaiting women taken when their city falls;


no, the pain I have on my mind is not as great for them as it is for you when I think of a moment when some Achaean man, one of those men who wear khitons of bronze, takes hold of you as you weep and leads you away as his prize, depriving you of your days of freedom from slavery. And you would be going to Argos, where you would be weaving at the loom of some other woman and no longer at your own loom at home and you would be carrying water for her, drawing from the spring called Messēís or the one called Hypereia. Again and again you will be forced to do things against your will, and the bondage holding you down will be harsh.  (Iliad 6.454-459)


And yet some of the women taken at Troy become the Queen of Sparta[iv], Queen Mother of Athens[v], Queen of Epirus and the islands of her coast[vi]  and even received heroic honors at Peragamon[vii]   and Leuctra in Laconia[viii]


Helpless Little Children


 Maybe Heracles wasn’t so helpless when he strangled to death the  serpents Hera unjustly put in his crib ( Apollodorus,   THE LIBRARY 2.4.8 , trans J. G. Frazer ) However the infant Opheltes was unable to fend off the serpent that killed him (Statius Thebaid 5.499,  trans J. H. Mozley  nor did the young sons of Medea fend off the sacrificial knife their mother used before flying away in a chariot pulled by serpents.( Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 146, trans. Aldrich)   Kind of makes Archemorus, and Mermerus & Eriopis look weak and helpless, and yet all three were given heroic honors and funeral games every four years. (Apollod. iii. 6. § 4.)   (Pausanias [2.3.7]


So whose else?  Who among the sad and downtrodden actually ended up proving to be a god-like daemon.





[i] (Pau 1.32.6)

[ii] (Lib Met 25)

[iii] (Hyginus Fabulae 45)

[iv] (Odyssey 4)

[v] (Paus. x. 25. § 3;)

[vi] (Paus. l. c., ii. 23. § 6.) 

[vii] (Paus. i. 11. § 2; comp. Dictys Cret. vi. 7, &c.; Eurip. Andromache.)

[viii] . (Paus. iii. 19. § 5, 26. § 3.) 





  1. Excellent post!
    I disagree about Antigone, however. I think her power is exactly in sacrifice, not persuasion. Her role is to secure the imminent destruction of Thebes. She must negate the sacrifice of Megareus who gave his life to save Thebes, so nothing short of sacrifice would be sufficient. Her only weapon is the curse. And it seems to me that, while some specific curses such as parental (Amyntor to Phoenix) are efficient even if the curser is alive and well, generally you must die to make your curse work. Antigone wants to die. She states it more than once, and after performing the obituary ritual once and securing her brother's visa to Hades, she returns so that to be caught and die. Her deed is what today is called a "martyrdom operation", and Thebes at the end looks like Brussels now.
    After she utters her curse, if my translation is correct, the Chorus never mentions her name again. They indeed tell Creon to rescue her first and bury her brother later, but when she turns out to be dead, they do not say a single word of sorrow. Nobody pities her at the end. (Presumably Ismene does, but she is offstage.) We expect her to receive some burial so than the gods are not further angered, but we do not know it with certainty. Creon does not even care to bring her body. The Thebans are too preoccupied with lamenting the demise of their dreams, hopes and city. They have not read the Cypria and think that if Creon had buried Polyneices, the gods would spare Thebes.

  2. I'd add to your list Deucalion. His story is the only flood I know where mankind is restarted because the survivor has wished so. Noah is never asked about his opinion, and as far as I checked, neither is Utnapishtim. I wonder what gives Deucalion this privilege of a wish? Remember what care Achilles takes to have his wish heard by Zeus, and how his mother uses the "If I ever have done you a service..." formula. Deucalion also has divine parents, but they are not in a position to use the formula :-). So why is Zeus so generous? Unfortunately, if the plot has been developed in detail in any Greek work, it has been lost. We have only Ovid.

    I am impressed by Cadmus and Agave at the end of the Bacchae. They actually refuse to worship Dionysus. But this is literature, not myth; and though Cadmus is honored as founder of Thebes, Agave has no honors.

  3. Maya,

    You are brilliant! Of course Thebes is doomed. Antigone's involvement can do nothing but further the inevitable. If Creon buries all the bodies, than Theseus would have no excuse to show and finish off the city.

    As to Zeus' generosity towards Deucalion, his wife and the rest of us; Zeus had "nothing to do with it, dearie." To paraphrase and old Mae West line. Deucalion and Pyrrha, prepared to worship the oreads who live in a cave above Delphi. They are called the Corycian Nymphs. Also ruling Delphi at the time was; “Themis kind, who in that age revealed in oracles the voice of fate. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1. 240 – 429) Aeschylus, at Eumenides 20, lists Themis as the second of the deities ruling there, Apollo being the fourth. So Zeus didn’t really have anything to do with it.

    As to Cadmus' attitude towards Dionysus, its like Cadmus is an old man retired from the job of being king and knowing that he is leaving soon. So he doesn't care. Agave's case always interests me. Most of her sisters became goddesses. Why not her?


  4. Theseus did wage a war against Thebans and defeat them, further weakening their forces. However, it was not him who finished the city but the Epigoni, a decade later, as they brag in the Iliad. I'd wish to read a story about something very important created in Thebes during these extra 10 years bought at such high price, but the Greek sources do not offer anything of this sort.

    About Deucalion, you are right as far as the Metamorphoses are concerned. However, this work lacks compatibility with earlier sources, as well as internal consistency. Just see Book 1, 1-88: first, the poet writes about some mysterious creator god, unnamed and with small "g" but otherwise very similar to God of the Hebrew Bible. Then, when we get down to the details of the creation of man (after line 70), all we have is good old Prometheus.

    Before the Flood, Jupiter states to the council of gods: "Now I must destroy the human race" (177 ff.). And so he does. It makes little sense that the supreme god, after so much trouble to conceive and carry out a flood, would then let the human survivors together with minor deities and Themis decide who would inhabit the world. Unless this Jupiter, like Terry Pratchett's gods, has a might strictly proportional to the number of his believers :-).

    Pindar, 4 centuries before Ovid, writes, "By decree of Zeus, god of lightning’s quivering flash, there came Deukalion and Pyrrha, down from Parnassos’ height, and first made them their home, then without wedlock founded a people of one origin, a race made out of stone." Ovid's contemporary Strabo quotes Hesiod about "the Leleges, whom once Zeus the son of Kronos, who knows devices imperishable, gave to Deukalion--peoples picked out of earth". A century after Ovid, Apollodorus and Hyginus write that Deucalion was asked what he wished and he said he wished men. So sources both before and after Ovid say that this was the will of Zeus.
    It is indeed a good question why Ovid leaves the matter to be decided without Jupiter. One does not expect a functional supreme god to have a laissez-fair demographic policy.

  5. Maya,

    Good research here. Thanks for clearing this up.


  6. Thank you!
    I am wondering how much of the "Theban" cycle of myths is actually Theban and how much is Athenian. From Perseus:

    " The sisters Antigone and Ismene are not mentioned by
    Homer, Hesiod, or Pindar. Antigone's heroism presupposes a legend that burial had been refused to Polyneices. Pindar knows nothing of such a refusal. He speaks of the seven funeral pyres provided at Thebes for the seven divisions of the Argive army. Similarly Pausanias records a Theban legend that the corpse of Polyneices was burned on the same pyre with that of Eteocles, and that the very flames refused to mingle. The refusal of burial was evidently an Attic addition to the story. It served to contrast Theban vindictiveness with Athenian humanity; for it was Theseus who ultimately buried the Argives at Eleusis."