I'm really enjoying my weekly instalments of Edith Hamilton's Mythology. After all the background material she's finally getting into the actual stories themselves, though she is only retelling them and occasionally quoting directly from the poems or original sources. It's an easy and painless introduction to Greek mythology (and the occasional nod to Roman writers as well). This week I've been reading about some of the early heroes like Prometheus and Io, Europa, the Cyclops and flower myths (I had no idea, or recollection from my earlier reading anyway, that there was such a thing).
Prometheus was introduced last week in reference to the creation myths. He created man from clay and gave them fire, which he stole from the gods. Prometheus met Io on a mountain peak where he was tied up after angering the gods over the fire debacle. Io was a lovely heifer and the two got to talking, sharing their stories. If I say Io was a beautiful princess and then mention she had a run in with Zeus, and knowing Zeus's proclivities towards young maidens it'll be a giveaway just what happened to Io. Hera happened to her of course. In trying to keep his latest assignation a secret he turned Io into a cow, but Hera wouldn't be fooled and asked Zeus to give her the cow as a gift. There was nothing for it but to hand her over.
Hera wasn't about to let Zeus change her back to her maidenly form so she got Argus, who had a hundred eyes, to watch over Io. Having so many eyes Argus could keep at least some of them open and watchful even when he needed to sleep. So Zeus gave the task of slaying Argus to his son Hermes. In the guise of a country traveler playing sweet music Hermes approached Argus and began telling him stories until finally all the eyes fell closed when Hermes quickly dispatched him. Not to be outdone, Hera took the eyes and put them on the tail of her favorite bird--the peacock. I think that's rather brilliant of the Greeks personally. I'll never look at a peacock in quite the same way again. Poor Io, however, would spend much time wandering about. She even has two seas named after her--the Ionian and the Bosphorus (which means "the Ford of the Cow"). No worries, Zeus turns her back to her original form eventually and and one of her descendants would be the great Hercules, which I am sure I'll be reading about later.
Europa, another princess, had better luck than Io, as Hera didn't seem to catch on that Zeus had her in his sights. This time it's Zeus who changes his shape, into a bull, before approaching her in a field where she was picking wildflowers. She sat down on his back and whisked her away to Crete. Although fearful at first, when she realized who he was she agreeable enough and in the end bore him many sons, though it's her name that remains known to the world.
Although the Cyclops were fearful monsters in the creation myths, they became favorites of Zeus and were allowed to remain when all the others were wiped from the earth. They inhabited an island where the famous Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) came ashore after the Trojan War. In need of food Odysseus and his men set off with wine to trade, but Polyphemus the Cyclops was in no mood for visitors. Instead of offering them hospitality he barred their way out of his cave and began eating them. It took a little ingenuity and a red hot poker in the eye for Odysseus and what remained his crew to escape, which they did tauntingly. Over time the myth of Polyphemus was toned down and even showed him in a pleasing manner but the "lovelorn giant" never did manage to woo the beautiful nymph Galatea with whom he was in love. I guess everyone has a chance at redemption, but not all stories have happy endings.
I like the flower myths, reading about Narcissus and Hyacinth. Hamilton notes that flowers in such a rocky and dry terrain as Greece are not overlooked and that the earliest storytellers told many stories about wildflowers.
"It was the most natural thing possible to connect them with the gods. All things in heaven and earth were mysteriously linked with divine powers, but beautiful things most of all."
Of course Narcissus, who could never be convinced to pay any attention to the lovelorn maidens who fell in love with him was fated to only love himself and pined away as he looked at his reflection in the water. A nymph named Echo was one of his victims of unrequited love. In a case of mistaken identity Hera punished Echo by not allowing her ever to use her tongue--she could only repeat what others have said. Although I knew Narcissus was a man, I wouldn't have thought that a Hyacinth would be male as well. Hyacinth, a close companion of Apollo was struck in the head and by a discus and his blood spilled onto the grass which sprouted flowers. Charming as the stories may be, they probably had much darker beginnings. In years when the harvest was poor humans were probably sacrificed. Since the earth provides human nourishment it's only fair that it would at times require its own nourishment as well. How very Shirley Jackson, eh (careful, spoilers in case you're not familiar with the short story)? Maybe she got her inspiration from the myths, too.
Next week is Cupid and Psyche, and perhaps I'll read on a bit for more myths of lovers.