Tuesday, December 20, 2016

TFBT: Samatia Dova, Greek Heroes in and out of Hades

 I recently had the pleasure of reading Dova's, "Greek Heroes in and out of Hades".  She primarily concentrates on the journeys of Odysseus, Heracles and Alcestis, but of course mentions other netherworld wanderers.  I love her writing style particularly when discussing Odysseus.  All Three Parts have a slightly different styles; Dova's study of Alcestis feels more like literary criticism about Euripides than mythological study of Alcestis. Her writing style is incredible dense and detailed.  This is not Mythology 101, something I very much appreciate.  It is a great book, buy a copy so you can underline all the little literary nuggets, you will be looking for later.

This blog post was meant to be a book review, but wanders far afield.  Let me here present my random notes on her fine book.

In Part One Dova notes that "the Odyssey deviates from mainstream mythical tradition regarding the death of Achilles by placing him in the underworld and not in Elysium or Leuce"   Elysium on the Isle of the Blest and the Island of Leuce are paradises set aside for those initiated into the ancient mysteries and the heroes of old.  Homer on the other hand seems to predict nothing but a damp and gloomy afterlife, but in reading Dova I noted three places where Homer possibly acknowledges a nicer option.
·      Now having come here, you have great power over the dead.” Odyssey 11.485-86a” Which acknowledges the gossip (other traditions) that Achilles is a prince on the Isle of Blest
·      “Next I saw mighty Heracles, his shade, actually; Heracles himself is feasting with the immortal gods and has as his wife fair-ankled Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and golden-sandaled Hera.”  Odyssey 11.601.604  Which is a particularly nice option
·      "But for thyself, Menelaus, fostered of Zeus, it is not ordained that thou shouldst die and meet thy fate in horse-pasturing Argos, but to the Elysian plain and the bounds of the earth will the immortals convey thee.” Homer, Odyssey 4.561ff.

She notes a “fundamental deficiency in Odysseus ' heroic profile...he didn't die in his pursuit of glory." She argues that this was the reason for his trip to Hades which bestows "a simulated death experience on a hero who keeps evading death with surprising yet suspicious suppleness."  Which pretty means, that Odysseus didn't have to visit Hades to get directions home from Tiresias.  Others have noted that when Odysseus reports back to Circe she seems to already know what the seer had to say.  Rather going in and out of Hades seems to give our hero some sort of immortality.  

Odysseus has a drunken young sailor named Elpenor that he left behind on Circe’s Island.  Odysseus meets the lad in Hades.  “His death occurs at a moment …moving from sleep to wakefulness” when he wakes during the crew’s departure and “from the top of Circe’s sacred palace to the depths of the underworld” he fell.  Odysseus and Elpenor…become the archetypical initiated and uninitiated.”  More on initiation later.  The forlorn ghost requires the Odysseus return to the island and give him a proper burial
Heap up a tomb for me at the shore of the gray sea, 76 wretched man that I am, so that even those who live in the future will learn about it. 77 Make this ritual act for me, and stick the oar on top of the tomb 78 - the oar that I used when I was rowing with my comrades.” Odyssey 11.75 
Not too many lines later the seer Tiresias requires Odysseus to perform the same ritual once he reaches Ithaca.
shall say that thou hast a winnowing-fan on thy stout shoulder, then do thou fix in the earth thy shapely oar [130] and make goodly offerings to lord Poseidon—a ram, and a bull, and a boar that mates with sows”
Is Odysseus performing heroic rites for the young man to give him a shot at Elysium or Leuce?

One of the characters that Odysseus meets in Hades is Ajax.  Dova has many insightful things to say about Ajax, one of interest at this point; "Ajax signals if not the end of the visit to the underworld, the end of the flashback to Troy and to the end of the heroic world in general."  It is as if Ajax, whose "silence eloquently indicate his unchanged disposition" is nothing but the turning post in a journey which has no purpose than to go in and out of Hades.

Part Two discusses Heracles in Hades, one of the characters Odysseus sees. Dova recalls that "Heracles' dual status after death (Olympus and Hades)...underlines the endless possibilities for redemption available to Zeus' offspring." It is also one of the Homeric hints of a better world to come.  

Dova points out, "Heracles and Odysseus now placed in the privileged position of the initiate."  Dova does not write much on initiation into the Mysteries.  No one does or did because to reveal the Mysteries is to risk being stoned to death by a crowd of angry theater-goers like Aeschylus.  Ends up the playwright never attended the Mysteries so had no secrets to reveal.  I wonder in Achilles and Homer attended the mysteries at Samothrace?  Socrates and Plato the Eleusinian mysteries?) 

The theory is that the rituals of the various mysteries took the initiates on a mystic trip in and out of Hades, thereby insuring them a spot on the Isle of the Blest.  Such a trip Dova insists is "a provisional immortality necessary for any heroic endeavor."  Dova does not mention Achilles here but “provisional immortality” but it strikes me that this is a better reason for Thetis to dip him in the Styx than the usual excuse of invulnerability. (Statius, Achilleid 1. 134 ff ).

Dova says "the abduction of Cerberus which constitutes the reason or perhaps excuse for Heracles presence among the dead."  Once again Dova is suggesting that the supposed reason for our hero to go in and out of Hades is not the given one. In the Footnotes she adds “The story of Heracles’ mission to fetch the cattle of Geryon, like the tale of his descent of Hades to fetch Cerberus is …a heroic journey to the land of the dead.” (Davies 1988 278) 

 Assuming the journey is in itself the purpose to attain "provisional immortality". I suggest that the "turning post" character in Heracles descent is Menoetes the herdsman who challenged the aggressor to wrestle.   Here Heracles wrestles with the herdsman of Hades similarly...
"Heracles: I must save this woman who has died so lately, bring Alcestis back to live in this house and pay Admetos all the kindness that I owe. I must go there [to the funeral at the graveside] and watch for Thanatos (Death) of the black robes, master of dead men, and I think I shall find him drinking the blood of slaughtered beasts beside the grave. Then, if I can break suddenly from my hiding place, catch him, and hold him in the circle of these arms, there is no way he will be able to break my hold on his bruised ribs” (Euripides, Alcestis 839 ff
If you've seen "Bill and Ted's Bogus Adventure" you know that defeating Death (even at Twister) gives the hero the boon of immortality

Part Three is about Alcestis, "And her deed was considered extraordinarily noble by men and gods alike; in fact, the gods impressed by her actions, let her soul come back from the underworld". Likewise Dova says of Achilles "Having earned divine admiration and praise to the utmost...the gods reward him with immortality and transport him to the Islands of the Blessed where he lives a blissful existences to eternity."

I mention it here because Dova spends a lot of time comparing the possible romance between Achilles/Patroclus and Alcestis' husband Admetus with Apollo.  Rather than convince of the romances and her argument by analogy between the two she convinced me of the effeminacy of Admetus.  She suggests that
·      Admetus was the passive member of the hypothetical A/A romance, that 
·      Alcestis' "sacrifice is the very means that cancels the suspension of the husband’s  sexuality" and that
·      "Alcestis assumes male responsibilities towards Admetus who displays almost feminine vulnerability and helplessness". 
One example of Admetus' helplessness is the courtship of Alcestis.  When great numbers of suitors were seeking Alcestis, daughter of Pelias, in marriage, and Pelias was refusing many of them, he set a contest for them, promising that he
would give her to the one who yoked wild beasts to a chariot. [He could take away whomever he wished.] And so Admetus begged Apollo to help him. Apollo, since he had been kindly treated when given in servitude to him, provided him with a wild boar and lion yoked together, and with these he bore off Alcestis in marriage.  (Hyginus Fabulae 50).  You just got to wonder if the “best man” has to hitch the beasts to the bridal chariot, what other services he has to handle to make the marriage work![i]

Dova’s Footnotes are amazing; just not the references, but discussions.  I love footnotes.  As a child reading Charles Mills Gayley’s “The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art, Based Originally on Bulfinch's.  I learned more about competitive methods of mythological interpretation than I did from reading the competing scholars book.   Dova’s footnotes are full of just as much wisdom
“The visit ends in fear of Persephone’s wrath, when …worries that he might have overstayed his welcome in the underworld.  The queen of the underworld is given an aura of matronly authority comparable to Arête’s, who is listening attentively to Odysseus’ account” Wow!  Talk about Reception!  Also one of the few acknowledgement by Dova that Odysseus is telling this story of his supposed trip to the underworld.    

The adjective “makar” applies to a mortal once in Il 11.68…It occurs fifteen more time in the Iliad always referring to immortals.  In the Odyssey “makar” refers to gods twenty out of twenty-six time

“…soldiers who unable to withdraw physically from combat, withdrew emotionally and mentally from everything beyond their small circle of combat-proven comrades.”  

Dova declares “Heracles and Odysseus, the only Greek heroes to successfully complete a descent to the underworld” You cannot not give Alcestis the same honor because she never actually got to Hades, Heracles ambushed Thanatos at her grave when he came to fetch the woman’s soul.  Still…Dova mentions Theseus who descended with his best friend to kidnap Persephone.  He only returned to the surface with the assistance of Heracles, but Heracles and Odysseus in turn had help.  Orpheus descended in hopes of getting his wife back and returned to the surface.  Princess Semele of Thebes was rescued by her thrice-born son Dionysus and taken to Olympus.  And a handful of people were brought back from the dead by Asclepius.

 The element of fire not only connects Heracles and Meleager in death, but also evokes immortalization procedures performed by a mother or nurse as in the case of Achilles and Demophon. “

“The confrontation between Apollo and the Fates may echo an ongoing antagonism between the old and new generation of divinities ,  see Eumenides 723 where the Furies perhaps in solidarity to the Fates, condemn this behavior of Apollo’s

Beautiful Writing: I just got to include some beautiful pieces of writing. 

"The Embassy Scene serves as the ultimate eye-opener for Achilles...Agamemnon, severely hard-pressed wants to buy him out"...by preserving the hero's glory in the memory of people , honor enables culture to override nature, disabling death's power to condemn a person's name to eternal obscurity.  Achilles enters the Trojan War trusting on the promise of such cultural immortality; when the promise is broken and his honor taken away he struggles with the realization that he needs another reason to die for."

"Meleager steps out of the underworld for a fleeting moment to become Hera les' worthy opponent; the poetic memory of encounters between Homeric warriors is automatically re-activated upon Heracles' arrival as if the visitor to Hades let in a beam of  life-restoring light before the door closed quickly behind him". 

[i] If “wild boar and lion yoked together” for a bridal chariot sounds familiar, it is because the beginning of the troubles at Thebes started with a similar requirement.
Hyginus Fabulae  70 Adrastus, son of Talaus, had daughters Deipyla and Argia. Oracular response was given him by Apollo that he would give his daughters in marriage to a boar and a lion. Tydeus, son of Oeneus, exiled by his father for killing at a hunt his brother Menalippus, came to Adrastus clad in a boar’s skin. At the same time Polynices, son of Oedipus, driven from his kingdom by his brother, came wearing a lion’s skin. When Adrastus saw them, mindful of the oracle, he gave Argia to Polynices, and Deipyla to Tydeus in marriage. 

I have found no great explanation for this odd marriage ritual.  

In the text is an image; it is supposedly in the Louvre a 6th century Attic amphora by the Diosphos vase painting group depicting Harmonia and Cadmus' (Kassmos in the Attic dialect) wedding chariot draw by the same beasts. Of course Graves explains that beasts symbolize the two halves of the Sacred Year, representing the traditional rivalry between the sacred king and his therapon (Graves uses the Celtic word; “tanist”).  


  1. The lion and wild boar appear also in the myth of Hyas:

    "Atlas... had... a son, Hyas. The son was killed by a wild boar or a lion..." (Hyginus).

    I made Prometheus warn his mortal nephew about the deadly risks of hunting and so give him an "Achilles' choice".

  2. Maya,

    Thanks. I found this

    Ovid, Fasti 5. 164 ff (trans.Boyle) (Roman poetry C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
    "When darkening twilight ushers in the night, the whole flock of Hyades is revealed. Taurus' face gleams with seven rays of fire, which Greek sailors call Hyades from their rain-word. To some they were the nurses of Bacchus [Dionysos], to others granddaughters of Tethys and old Oceanus. Atlas did not shoulder the load of Olympus yet, when lovely, eye-catching Hyas was born. Oceanus' daughter, Aethra, bore him and the Nymphae in timely births, but Hyas was born first. While his beard was fresh, stags trembled in terror before him, and the hare was welcome prey. But when years matured his manhood, he breavely closed with the shaggy lioness and the boar. He sought the lair and brood of the whelped lioness and was bloody prey to the Libyan beast. His mother sobbed for Hyas, his sad sisters sobbed and Atlas, whose neck would haul the world. The sisters surpassed both parents in pious love and won heaven. Their name is from Hyas."