Figures & Themes
Above: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), One of the Hours Holding the Bridle of a Horse of the Sun, and Other Figures (ca. 1750-53).
Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Articles from the
Oxford Classical Dictionary
mythology | mythographers | aetiology | cults and myths: Aetolian | Arcadian | Attic | Corinthian | Cretan | Messenian | Rhodian
Like the male heroes of epic poetry, Helen of Troy has been immortalized, but not for deeds of strength and honor; she is remembered as the beautiful woman who disgraced herself and betrayed her family and state. Norman Austin here surveys interpretations of Helen in Greek literature from the Homeric period through later antiquity. He looks most closely at a revisionist myth according to which Helen never sailed to Troy, but remained blameless, while a libertine phantom or ghost impersonated her at Troy. Comparing the functions of contradictory images of Helen, Austin helps to clarify the problematic relations between beauty and honor and between ugliness and shame in ancient Greece. Austin first discusses the canonical account of the Iliad and the Odyssey: Helen as the archetype of woman without shame. He next considers different versions of Helen in the Homeric tradition. Among these, he shows how Sappho presents Helen as an icon of absolute beauty while she defends her own preference of eros over honor and her choice of woman as the object of desire. Austin then turns to three major authors who repudiated the traditional Helen of Troy: the lyric poet Stesichorus and the dramatist Euripides, who embraced the alternative myth of Helen's phantom; and the historian Herodotus, who claimed to have found in Egypt a Helen story that dispenses with both Helen and the phantom. Austin maintains that the conflicting motives that prompted these writers to rehabilitate Helen led to further revisions of her image, though none have endured as a credible substitute for the Helen of epic tradition.
In this illustrated study, Richard Buxton analyzes Greek literary narratives and visual representations of the metamorphosis of humans and gods, as evidenced from Homer to Nonnos. Such tales have become familiar in their Ovidian dress, as in the best-selling translation by Ted Hughes; Buxton explores their Greek antecedents. He investigates such issues as: how do different contexts shape the way in which metamorphosis is narrated? How do the assumptions of commentators about "strangeness" affect how metamorphosis is interpreted? How far should an interpreter allow "contextual charity" to render more acceptable a belief such as that in metamorphosis? What are the implications of the notions of 'astonishment' (Greek: thambos) in a range of narratives about transformation? Throughout this work, Buxton draws comparisons between the Greek evidence and data from other religious traditions, ancient and modern; he also introduces comparative material from the sciences, from modern painting and literature, and from the cinema and computer graphics. In investigating metamorphoses of gods Buxton revisits the concept of anthropomorphism, arguing that the fact that Greek divinities were believed to change shape does not undermine the fundamentally humanlike form of Greek divinity. He also examines certain strands of Greek tradition, particularly among the philosophers, which called metamorphosis into question, whether in relation to the gods or to humans. Individual chapters deal with transformations into the landscape and into plants or trees--in the latter case transformation stories are set against a background of cultural beliefs about "seminal" substances such as blood and tears. Overall, Forms of Astonishment raises issues relevant to an understanding of broad aspects of Greek culture, and illuminates issues explored by anthropologists and students of religion.
Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art
ed. James J. Clauss & Sarah Iles Johnston, 1997
From the dawn of European literature, the figure of Medea--best known as the helpmate of Jason and murderer of her own children--has inspired artists in all fields throughout all centuries. Euripides, Seneca, Corneille, Delacroix, Anouilh, Pasolini, Maria Callas, Martha Graham, Samuel Barber, and Diana Rigg are among the many who have given Medea life on stage, film, and canvas, through music and dance, from ancient Greek drama to Broadway. In seeking to understand the powerful hold Medea has had on our imaginations for nearly three millennia, a group of renowned scholars here examines the major representations of Medea in myth, art, and ancient and contemporary literature, as well as the philosophical, psychological, and cultural questions these portrayals raise. The result is a comprehensive and nuanced look at one of the most captivating mythic figures of all time. Unlike most mythic figures, whose attributes remain constant throughout mythology, Medea is continually changing in the wide variety of stories that circulated during antiquity. She appears as enchantress, helper-maiden, infanticide, fratricide, kidnapper, founder of cities, and foreigner. Not only does Medea's checkered career illuminate the opposing concepts of self and other, it also suggests the disturbing possibility of otherness within self. In addition to the editors, the contributors include Fritz Graf, Nita Krevans, Jan Bremmer, Dolores M. O'Higgins, Deborah Boedeker, Carole E. Newlands, John M. Dillon, Martha C. Nussbaum, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, and Marianne McDonald.
The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology
Marcel Detienne, trans. Janet Lloyd, 1994
Rich with implications for the history of sexuality, gender issues, and patterns of Hellenic literary imagining, Marcel Detienne's landmark book recasts long-standing ideas about the fertility myth of Adonis. The author challenges Sir James Frazer's thesis that the vegetation god Adonis-- whose premature death was mourned by women and whose resurrection marked a joyous occasion--represented the annual cycle of growth and decay in agriculture. Using the analytic tools of structuralism, Detienne shows instead that the festivals of Adonis depict a seductive but impotent and fruitless deity--whose physical ineptitude led to his death in a boar hunt, after which his body was found in a lettuce patch. Contrasting the festivals of Adonis with the solemn ones dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of grain, he reveals the former as a parody and negation of the institution of marriage. Detienne considers the short-lived gardens that Athenian women planted in mockery for Adonis's festival, and explores the function of such vegetal matter as spices, mint, myrrh, cereal, and wet plants in religious practice and in a wide selection of myths. His inquiry exposes, among many things, attitudes toward sexual activities ranging from "perverse" acts to marital relations.
Below: Caravaggio (1571-1610), Medusa (ca. 1597/98). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Google Cultural Institute. License: Public domain.
Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being
In this book, Page duBois offers a prehistory of hierarchy. Using structural anthropology, symbolic analysis, and recent literary theory, she demonstrates a shift in Greek thought from the fifth to the fourth century B.C. that had a profound influence upon subsequent Western culture and politics. Through an analysis of mythology, drama, sculpture, architecture, and Greek vase painting, duBois documents the transition from a system of thought that organized the experience of difference in terms of polarity and analogy to one based upon a relatively rigid hierarchical scheme. This was the beginning of "the great chain of being," the philosophical construct that all life was organized in minute gradations of superiority and inferiority. This scheme, in various guises, has continued to influence philosophical and political thought. The author's intelligent and discriminating use of scholarship from various fields makes this work an impressive interdisciplinary study of interest to classicists, feminist scholars, historians, art historians, anthropologists, and political scientists.
The transformation of people into animals, plants, and stones is one of the most common and characteristic themes of Greek mythology, embodying as well some of the most mysterious and fantastic episodes in a mythology that is sometimes considered to be relatively realistic and lacking in fantasy. This book, the first study of these myths in English, analyzes the various ways in which they imagine and explore the experience of changing one's form. Irving's unusual approach is to look for their meaning not in long-forgotten rituals or historical events, but in their imaginative appeal as stories.
Scylla: Myth, Metaphor, Paradox
What's in a name? Using the example of a famous monster from Greek myth, this book challenges the dominant view that a mythical symbol denotes a single, clear-cut 'figure' and proposes instead to define the name 'Scylla' as a combination of three concepts - sea, dog and woman - whose articulation changes over time. While archaic and classical Greek versions usually emphasize the metaphorical coherence of Scylla's components, the name is increasingly treated as a well-defined but also paradoxical construct from the late fourth century BCE onward. Proceeding through detailed analyses of Greek and Roman texts and images, Professor Hopman shows how the same name can variously express anxieties about the sea, dogs, aggressive women and shy maidens, thus offering an empirical response to the semiotic puzzle raised by non-referential proper names.
Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore
This book is the first comprehensive study of the nymph in the ancient Greek world. This well-illustrated book examines nymphs as both religious and mythopoetic figures, tracing their development and significance in Greek culture from Homer through the Hellenistic period. Drawing upon a broad range of literary and archaeological evidence, Jennifer Larson discusses sexually powerful nymphs in ancient and modern Greek folklore, the use of dolls representing nymphs in the socialization of girls, the phenomenon of nympholepsy, the nymphs' relations with other deities in the Greek pantheon, and the nymphs' role in mythic narratives of city-founding and colonization. The book includes a survey of the evidence for myths and cults of the nymphs arranged by geographical region, and a special section of the worship of nymphs in caves throughout the Greek world.
Below: Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), Dance of the Muses on Mount Helicon (1807). Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and the Greek Man
Nicole Loraux, trans. Paula Wissing, 1995
Nicole Loraux has devoted much of her writing to charting the paths of the Greek "imaginary," revealing a collective masculine psyche fraught with ambivalence as it tries to grasp the differences between nature and culture, body and soul, woman and man. The Experiences of Tiresias, its title referring to the shepherd struck blind after glimpsing Athena's naked body, captures this ambivalence in exploring how the Greek male defines himself in relationship to the feminine. In these essays, Loraux disturbs the idea of virile men and feminine women, a distinction found in official discourse and aimed at protecting the ideals of male identity from any taint of the feminine. Turning to epic and to Socrates, however, she insists on a logic of an inclusiveness between the genders, which casts a shadow over their clear, officially defined borders. The emphasis falls on the body, often associated with feminine vulnerability and weakness, and often dissociated from the ideal of the brave, self-sacrificing male warrior. But heroes such as the Homeric Achilles, who fears yet fights bravely, and Socrates, who speaks of the soul through the language of the body, challenge these representations. The anatomy of pain, the heroics of childbirth, the sorrows of tears, the warrior's wounds, and the madness of the soul: all these experiences are shown to engage with both the masculine and the feminine in ways that do not denigrate the experiences for either gender.
Aristomenes of Messene: Legends of Sparta's Nemesis
Aristomenes was the legendary hero of the Messenian wars who led resistence against Sparta and yet, despite a full account of his heroic deeds by Pausanias, is now almost forgotten. This detailed study, which is based on a close reading of Pausanias and other sources, seeks to reinstate Aristomenes to his rightful place in ancient legend as well as reaffirm the importance of his story for Messenian history. After a discussion of Pausanias' sources and his use of them, Daniel Ogden looks at what type of hero Aristomenes was, finding him to have had a comic and sometimes ludicrous side. Aristomenes' heroic regalia, such as his magical shield, his frequent visits to the underworld, and the relation of his story to others from Messenia are also discussed in detail in this study which demonstrates the ways in which history, myth and literature fuse. Extensive Greek extracts are presented in the notes while the main body of the text presents English translations.
The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric
John Scheid & Jesper Svenbro, 1996
The fundamental gesture of weaving in The Craft of Zeus is the interlacing of warp and woof described by Plato in The Statesman--an interweaving signifying the union of opposites. From rituals symbolizing--even fabricating--the cohesion of society to those proposed by oracles as a means of propitiating fortune; from the erotic and marital significance of weaving and the woven robe to the use of weaving as a figure for language and the fabric of the text, this lively and lucid book defines the logic of one of the central concepts in Greek and Roman thought--a concept that has persisted, woof and warp crossing again and again, as the fabric of human history has unfolded.
Below: Roman wall mosaic depicting Ulysses (Odysseus) confronting the Sirens; Dougga, Tunisia, 3rd c. CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: Giorces. License: Public domain.
The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family
The ancient Athenians were "quarrelsome as friends, treacherous as neighbors, brutal as masters, faithless as servants, shallow as lovers--all of which was in part redeemed by their intelligence and creativity." Thus writes Philip Slater in this classic work on narcissism and family relationships in fifth-century Athenian society. Exploring a rich corpus of Greek mythology and drama, he argues that the personalities and social behavior of the gods were neurotic, and that their neurotic conditions must have mirrored the family life of the people who perpetuated their myths. The author traces the issue of narcissism to mother-son relationships, focusing primarily on the literary representation of Hera and the male gods and showing how it related to devalued women raising boys in an ambitious society dominated by men. "The role of homosexuality in society, fatherless families, working mothers, women's status, and violence, male pride, and male bonding--all these find their place in Slater's analysis, so honestly and carefully addressed that we see our own societal dilemmas reflected in archaic mythic narratives all the more clearly." -- Richard P. Martin, Princeton University
Medusa, the Gorgon, who turns those who gaze upon her to stone, is one of the most popular and enduring figures of Greek mythology. Long after many other figures from Greek myth have been forgotten, she continues to live in popular culture. In this fascinating study of the legend of Medusa, Stephen R. Wilk begins by refamiliarizing readers with the story through ancient authors and classical artwork, then looks at the interpretations that have been given of the meaning of the myth through the years. A new and original interpretation of the myth is offered, based upon astronomical phenomena. The use of the gorgoneion, the Face of the Gorgon, on shields and on roofing tiles is examined in light of parallels from around the world, and a unique interpretation of the reality behind the gorgoneion is suggested. Finally, the history of the Gorgon since classical times is explored, culminating in the modern use of Medusa as a symbol of Female Rage and Female Creativity.
Below: Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Rape of Europa (1772). Source: Wikimedia Commons. License: Public domain.