Supernaturalism in Greek Literature
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
There has not been, to my knowledge, much examination of the question of why Greek myth is so bountifully endowed with monsters—several, to be sure, of humanoid form, others of hybrid form, and still others of more eccentric form. Perhaps the question is unanswerable, but some tentative speculation may be useful. As Denys Page long ago noted in The Homeric Odyssey (1955), many of what we would now term “fantasy” or “weird” elements in the earliest literary text of direct relevance to us, Homer’s Odyssey (probably fused together—from oral sources dating to as early as the 12th century B.C.E.—around 700 B.C.E.), are derived in part from, or are representations of, folktales. For example, the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus is an echo of numerous European myths in which a hero is trapped within a giant’s cave. The Odyssey also appears to borrow numerous details from the story of Jason and the Argonauts, evidently a separate myth-cycle that had nothing to do with Odysseus and his peregrinations.
As it is, the dominant quasi-supernatural thread running through Greek myth—which, obviously, was not invented in any meaningful sense by the Homeric poets but was merely borrowed or adapted by them—is the existence of a plethora of monsters of all sorts. Some of these monsters are only tangentially alluded to in Homer or in the nearly contemporaneous Theogony of Hesiod, and they range from pure hybrids (the Chimaera, a fire-breathing creature with the head of a lion, the body of a she-goat, and the tail of a snake; the Hydra, a snakelike and multiheaded creature that had the remarkably imaginative feature of growing two heads when one was cut off; the Harpies, depicted usually as birds with the faces of women; the Sirens, also fusions of birds and women) to personifications of natural forces (Charybdis, a whirlpool) to creatures of much more bizarre configuration (Scylla, originally a woman but transformed into a sea creature with six heads and twelve feet, each head having a triple row of teeth). Many of these creatures were featured in the Herakles cycle of twelve “labours.” It is worth noting that every one of these monsters was declared to be the offspring of the gods (as, indeed, were most of the “heroes” of Greek myth), so that they cannot be envisioned as independently conceived entities of a literary imagination, although some of their details and actions were no doubt the result of literary treatment.
In any event, Odysseus’ remarkable narrative of his adventures (books 9—12 of the Odyssey) constitutes perhaps the most concentrated account of supernatural and fantastic events in all antiquity. To the extent that this passage, unlike the (probably much earlier) Iliad, exhibits the burgeoning Greek fascination with the world beyond the confines of Greece or Asia Minor (a fascination likely engendered by traders’ accounts of such remote areas as Sicily, northern Africa, and even the straits of Gibraltar), it could be considered parallel to a similar fascination, exhibited in mediaeval or early Renaissance times, that resulted in the fantastic narratives of Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, and other travellers.
Book 9 focuses on Polyphemus, the Cyclops, one of a race of uncivilised, unsociable creatures dwelling on an unspecified island in the Mediterranean (105f.). Oddly enough, the fact that this race of beings has only one eye is not specified until line 333, but no doubt every reader (or listener) would have been aware of the fact (the word cyclops means not “one-eyed” but “round-eyed”). Polyphemus himself is referred to as “a monstrous wonder made to behold, not / like a man, an eater of bread, but more like a wooded / peak of the high mountains seen standing away from the others” (9.190—92). His devouring of several of Odysseus’ men, Odyseus’ craftiness in identifying himself as Outis (Nobody), and his ultimate defeat of Polyphemus by getting him drunk and then poking out his eye, are all too well-known to require elaboration.
The Laestrygonians—a giant cannibal race whom Odysseus encounters in Book 10—also eat some of Odysseus’ men. At one point a woman member of the race is described as “big as a mountain peak” (10.113). The Greeks flee and come to Circe’s isle of Aiaia (10.135f.). She is surrounded by animals “whom the goddess had given evil drugs and enchanted” (10.213). Sure enough, she gives Odysseus’ men a “potion” (10.234) and strikes them with a wand, whereupon they become pigs. It is of interest that the god Hermes gives Odysseus some “medicine” (10.287) as protection from Circe—the mysterious substance that Homer calls moly. Eventually she changes his men back to human form, but in the process she tells Odysseus that he must go to the house of Hades and talk with Tiresias, the deceased prophet, for advice on how to return home and what to expect when he gets there.
This sets up the descent to Hades in Book 11. We have already seen that a trip to the underworld was included in the Gilgamesh cycle, and no doubt it was a common feature of many mythologies. In the Odyssey, the entire episode was probably an independent narrative that was later inserted into the text (Page 46). In Homer, Hades (let us call it such, even though the customary Greek expression—en Haidou [“in (the house) of Hades”]—makes it clear that Hades is the name of the god ruling the realm and not the name of the place) is not depicted as being under the earth, but rather in some unspecified area to the north (10.507). In any event, Odysseus makes the journey, encountering not only the ghost of Elpenor, a shipmate who had fallen overboard and is therefore unburied, but other ghosts as well. In a bizarre ritual that we find in no other author, the ghosts recognise Odysseus and are able to speak to him only after they drink blood from a sacrifice he has made (11.145f.). In one of the most poignant passages in the work, Odysseus attempts to embrace the shade of his mother but is unable to do so (11.204f.): manifestly the shades are, although visible, either entirely immaterial or of such fine matter that they cannot be grasped. It is also interesting to note that the dead do not know anything of what has happened in the world of the living since their deaths: at one point Achilles, the leader of the Greeks at Troy, after memorably noting that he would rather be a slave in the living world than a king of the dead, asks Odysseus to “tell me anything you have heard of my proud son [Neoptolemus], whether / or not he went along to war to fight as a champion” (11.492—93). There follows a memorable passage about certain shades who are being punished (11.576f.): Tityos (whose liver is being eaten by vultures), Tantalos (who, standing up to his neck in a lake, finds the water receding as he tries to drink it and fruits flying out of his reach as he tries to pluck them), and Sisyphus and his stone. These are, indeed, the sole instances of shades undergoing punishment in Hades; indeed, the passage is so anomalous that, even in antiquity, it was regarded with suspicion, and the critic Aristarchus (among many others down to the present) regarded it as spurious.
Book 12 deals with the twin horrors of Scylla and Charybis (12.73f.), followed by the Sirens (165.f). Circe herself provides a memorable description of Scylla:
“In that cavern Skylla lives, whose howling is terror.
Her voice indeed is only as loud as a new-born puppy
could make, but she herself is an evil monster. No one,
not even a god encountering her, could be glad at that sight.
She has twelve feet, and all of them wave in the air. She has six
necks upon her, grown to great length, and upon each neck
there is a horrible head, with teeth in it, set in three rows
close together and stiff, full of black death. Her body
from the waist down is holed up inside the hollow cavern,
but she holds her heads poked out and away from the terrible hollow,
and there she fishes, peering all over the cliffside, looking
for dolphins or dogfish to catch or anything bigger,
some sea monster, of whom Amphitrite keeps so many;
never can sailors boast aloud that their ship has passed her
without any loss of men, for with each of her heads she snatches
one man away and carries him off from the dark-prowed vessel.” (12.85—100)
Sure enough, Scylla snatches six of Odysseus’ men (he appears to have an endless supply) as they pass by her (12.245f.). Charybdis appears to be nothing more than the embodiment of a whirlpool. There is, curiously enough, no physical description of the Sirens (the notion that they are half-human and half-bird derives from their depiction on various surviving works of art, presumably of a later date than the Odyssey). Circe had called them “enchanters of all mankind” [12.39—40]), but the wax that Odysseus puts into the ears of his men allow them to escape the Sirens’ fatal song.
All the leading Greek tragedians—Aeschylus (525—456 B.C.E.), Sophocles (496?—406/5 B.C.E.), and Euripides (485?—406 B.C.E.)—broached the supernatural in their plays, although in widely varying manners and degrees. It is unfortunate that we have only seven plays each by Aeschylus and Sophocles, out of the dozens they wrote over their long careers, but even the plays that survive provide tantalising hints of the manner in which they approached the supernatural.
Aeschylus’ Persae (472 B.C.E.; The Persians), written a few years after the Greeks’ remarkable victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480, introduces what is presumably the first ghost in Western tragedy—the ghost of Darius (the Persian emperor who was himself defeated by the Greeks at Marathon in 490—a battle in which Aeschylus had fought—and died in 485). Darius does little but lament the destruction of the Persian army and fleet, but it is significant that the chorus is indeed afraid of his very appearance: “I shrink in awe from gazing upon thee, I shrink in awe from speaking in thy presence by reason of mine old-time dread of thee” (694—96), suggesting that, at a minimum, the appearance of a ghost is an anomalous event. As in Homer, Darius is ignorant of what has happened since his death, although in a sense this becomes simply an excuse for his widow Atossa and his son Xerxes to explain the awful fate of the Persians. Darius does state that he comes from “the world below” (697)—one of the first extant indications that Hades is in the underworld.
The chief work of Sophocles, from a supernatural perspective, is the Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis; probably staged before 440 B.C.E.). This play deals with the concluding period of the life of the hero Herakles, who has married Deianira and, because of his murder of Iphitus, son of Eurytus, is living in exile in Trachis. A Messenger tells Deianira that Herakles has taken Iole (daughter of Eurytus) as a paramour (379), a point confirmed by Lichas, Herakles’ herald. Deianira is naturally disturbed, but she hopes she can retain Herakles’ love—specifically by the use of a substance given to her by the centaur Nessus. Some time earlier, Nessus, attempting to rape Deianira, had been killed by Herakles, who sent a poisoned arrow into Nessus’ side. As he is dying, Nessus tells Deianira:
“Gather with thy hands
The clotted gore that curdles round my wound,
Just where the Hydra, Lerna’s monstrous breed,
Has tinged the barbèd arrow with her gall.
Thus shalt thou have a charm to bind the heart
Of Heracles, and never shall he look
On wife or maid to love her more than thee.” (572—77)
Deianira accordingly rubs this substance over a robe that she then instructs Lichas to present to Herakles.
Now Deianira believes that the substance is merely a love-potion that will simply “bind the heart / Of Herakles”; indeed, not long thereafter she frets that she has made a disastrous mistake (“I know not, but I tremble lest deceived / By fond hopes I have wrought a grievous harm” [666—67]). She learns quickly what that “harm” is. She tells the story of how she used a piece of wool to rub the substance over the robe:
But as I passed indoors behold a sight
Potentous, well nigh inconceivable.
It chanced that I had thrown the hank of wool
Used for the smearing into the full blaze
Of sunlight; with the gradual warmth dissolved
It shrank and shrivelled up till naught was left
Save a fine powder, likest to the dust
That strews the ground when sawyers are at work—
Mere dust and ashes. (693—701)
Deianira’s astonished reaction is the clearest indication that she herself has witnessed a supernatural phenomenon.
The cataclysm now follows quickly. Hyllus, the son of Deianira and Herakles, states that Herakles, having put on the robe, is experiencing excruciating pain. Deianira promptly kills herself in grief and remorse. It is only at this point that the dying Herakles makes his appearance, dragging his ravaged body onto the stage and telling of the dreadful pain he is feeling (“Again the deadly spasm; it shoots and burns / Through all my vitals. Will it never end, / This struggle with the never-dying worm?” [1081—3]). Aside from a very compressed account of his twelve labours, he tells of the prophecy made by his “sire” (Zeus) that he would be killed not by a living person, but by a dead one (i.e., Nessus).
The Trachiniae is a perfect embodiment of the “pity and fear” that governs Greek tragedy, and the plainly supernatural manner of Herakles’ death, caused unwittingly by his own wife, makes it a striking anticipation of much supernatural work in the centuries to come.
By an historical accident, we have more plays by Euripides—nineteen—than by the other two tragedians combined. We are accordingly able to get a somewhat better idea of the broad range of topics that the tragedians as a whole broached, although Euripides himself was known in antiquity for his daring, even radical treatments of such issues as feminism, the role of the gods, and so on. Indeed, Euripides developed a reputation even in his own time for religious scepticism, perhaps even atheism—although it is difficult to believe that any of the tragic playwrights, or indeed any of the leading writers or philosophers of the fifth century B.C.E., gave unqualified credence to the Greek pantheon.
Some of Euripides’ work embodies what would later be called physical or non-supernatural horror, such as the grisly fate of Pentheus in the Bacchae (405 B.C.E.), who, because he dared to challenge the god Dionysus, was torn to pieces by Dionysus’ servants, the Maenads. Herakles Mainomenos (c. 417 B.C.E.; The Madness of Herakles) is of somewhat greater relevance. Throughout his life Herakles was dogged by the hostility of Hera, and in this play she incites Herakles into such madness that he kills his wife, Megara, and his children. To the extent that this event is (in the context of the play) unequivocally brought about by the goddess, it cannot from our perspective be considered a supernatural phenomenon. Earlier in the play there is a choral ode that tells of Herakles’ twelve labours. It is unfortunate that these labours are not treated in extenso in any extant work of Graeco-Roman literature, for of course several of them involve manifestly supernatural entities or events—the Hydra; the Nemean Lion, an otherwise invulnerable monster whom Herakles manages to choke with his bare hands; and in particular the final labour, the fetching of the three-headed dog Cerberus from the underworld.
Euripides’ masterwork of horror is Medea (431 B.C.E.). By this time Medea’s reputation as a witch or sorceress was firmly established; and yet, at the outset the reader’s (or viewer’s) sympathy is on her side, as she has been scorned by her husband Jason, who has taken up with a younger woman, Creusa, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Her revenge is to lace a coronet and dress with “poisons” (52), which, when Creusa dons them, causes her extreme pain:
Then suddenly we saw a frightening thing. She changed
Colour; she staggered sideways, shook in every limb.
She was just able to collapse on to a chair,
Or she would have fallen flat. Then one of her attendants,
An old woman, thinking that perhaps the anger of Pan,
Or some other god had struck her, chanted the cry of worship.
But then she saw, oozing from the girl’s lips, white froth;
The pupils of her eyes were twisted out of sight;
The blood was drained from all her skin. (163—70)
It is difficult to know exactly what kind of “poisons” have brought about this effect; but that something highly bizarre is going on is confirmed by the fact that Creon, coming to aid her daughter, somehow sticks to the dress (which by this time has set Creusa’s body on fire), and both perish. The long Messenger’s speech (1136—230) in which this entire episode is related is one of the most powerful and sustained set-pieces of supernatural horror in all Greek literature.
One of Euripides’ latest extant works is the Cyclops, the only surviving satyr play. The satyr play was a lighter, oftentimes quite ribald pendant to the trilogy of tragedies performed in the annual dramatic contests in Athens, and its focus on Dionysus or Bacchus (with its consequent emphasis on drinking and sexual licence) structures Euripides’ play in a significant manner. There is nothing, strictly speaking, supernatural about the Cyclops except the very presence of Polyphemus, the Cyclops. The point of interest in this work, from our perspective, is the manner in which virtually the identical scenario found in the Odyssey—the entrapment of Odysseus and his men (here in conjunction with Silenus, an attendant of Bacchus) within Polyphemus’ cave, Polyphemus’ eating of two of Odysseus’ men (described in a quite grisly monologue [557f.]), Odysseus’ plans to get Polyphemus drunk and then stab his eye with a burning wooden stake, and even an elaborate play on words when Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is “Outis”—can be used for the purpose of slapstick comedy.
By the time we come to the Argonautica of Apollinius Rhodius (295?—215 B.C.E.), we are in a very different atmosphere from either the Homeric epics or fifth-century Greek tragedy. As one of the most prominent of the Alexandrian poets of the fourth and third centuries, Apollonius and his friend Callimachus adopted a very different attitude to poetry from their predecessors: concerned with displaying their erudition and their sophistication (rather in the manner of such twentieth-century poets as Eliot and Pound), they clearly regarded the tales of Greek myth merely as fodder for the exhibition of their poetical talents. Perhaps Apollonius chose to relate the voyage of the Argo simply because it had not been the subject of any prominent epic (or, for that matter, tragedy) in the past. The result is a work of only intermittent interest—one that in some ways fails to hang together as a unity, but which contains some striking set-pieces. One of the most striking is the story, in Book 2, of the prophet Phineus, who, having offended Zeus, is plagued by the Harpies (their name means “the snatchers”), who pluck his food away just as he is about to eat it. In many ways this punishment is notably analogous to that of the three notorious characters in Hades, Tityos, Tantalus, and Sisyphus; but Phineus dwells in the very real locale of Bithynia, on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor. Two heroes from the Argo, Zetes and Calaïs, give chase to the Harpies, but the goddess Iris intervenes, saying that they will no longer bother Phineus.
It is Phineus who tells the Argonauts of the dangers of the Cyanean Rocks, or the Clashing Rocks. This account—of the immense cliffs that, at the Bosphorus, clash together, crushing any ships that dare attempt to make their way through them—has the flavour of a traveller’s tale, and is perhaps nothing more than a supernaturalisation of the narrowness of the strait at this juncture. The Argo manages to get through, albeit not without difficulty: “Once more the Rocks met face to face with a resounding crash, flinging a great cloud of spray into the air. The sea gave a terrific roar and the broad sky rang again. Caverns underneath the crags bellowed as the sea came surging in. A great wave broke against the cliffs and the white foam swept high above them. Argo was spun round as the flood reached her” (2.565—70).
But the most interesting portion of the Argonautica, from our perspective, is the entirety of Book 3, the tale of Jason and Medea. This account deals with the initial encounter of Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis, whom—it is of some significance to note—the gods cause to fall in love with Jason, and so help him obtain the golden fleece. At the very outset Medea is called “something of a witch” (epei doloessa tetuktai [3.89]—doloessa really meaning subtle or wily). Hecate, goddess of the underworld and of witchcraft, has taught Medea the use of magic herbs, and Medea herself has made a magic ointment from the ichor of Prometheus. This helps Jason overcome the various challenges that Aeetes puts to him—the serpent’s teeth that, when sown, spring up as soldiers, fire-breathing bulls, and so forth. Then, in Book 4, when the golden fleece is found being guarded by an immense snake, Medea fashions a “spell” (4.157) that puts the snake to sleep.
The Peri thaumasion (On Marvels) by Phlegon of Tralles (early first century C.E.), a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian, is a prime instance of the accidental nature of the transmission of ancient texts. This text is itself fragmentary, but it is only one example of a minor but apparently popular genre in antiquity—what nineteenth-century scholars somewhat cumbersomely labelled paradoxography, or accounts of miracles and marvels. This genre goes back at least to the poet Callimachus in the third century B.C.E., and such luminaries as Varro and Cicero evidently dabbled in it; their works, however, do not survive, but Phlegon’s, written in a rather crude and easily understood Greek, does. Phlegon is a kind of Charles Fort of the ancient world, having amassed bizarre and generally preposterous stories of giant bones, women turning into men, monstrous births, and so forth; but his little treatise gains its greatest interest in its opening three chapters, which are humble and not ineffective stories of ghosts. The first and most celebrated one, the tale of Philinnion and Machates, is unfortunately fragmentary, but we can gain some idea of its overall plot from a summary of the story (clearly not invented by Phlegon) in Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Republic. Proclus dates the events of the story to the reign of Philip of Macedon (r. 359—336 B.C.E.), whereas the extant text of Phlegon fails to provide any date. Proclus goes on to say that a young woman, Philinnion, died shortly after she was married to one Krateros. Six months later she returned from the dead, appearing for several nights to one Machates, “because of her love for him” (quoted in Hansen’s edition of Phlegon, 200), when Machates was staying with her parents. Then she died again, “proclaiming that what she had done was done in accord with the will of the subterranean deities.”
This is, aside from the opening segments, largely the tale that Phlegon tells; he has Philinnion state, “It was not without divine will that I came here” (27). She is a surprisingly substantial ghost, as “she ate and drank” (27) with Machates. It is, in fact, not entirely clear why she chose to appear to Machates, as she does not seem to have had any prior relationship with him; or, rather, the true mystery is why Machates was staying with Philinnion’s parents in the first place. In any case, Philinnion’s tomb is opened and, sure enough, it is found empty. This is a remarkable instance of a physical, rather than merely spiritual, resurrection. The other ghost stories in Phlegon are of no particular interest. His treatise was only first translated in full into English in 1996, and the translator, William Hansen, states bluntly that Phlegon “dwells especially on the sensational, the grotesque and the bizarre” (11). Given that Phlegon evidently regards his accounts as true, it is a question whether they should be considered a contribution to supernatural fiction at all; but, as we shall see presently, his little book gained a surprising disciple seventeen hundred years after it was set down.