Dikè and Cosmos
The Hero’s First Mission, to Guarantee Cosmic Order Against the Return of Chaos
I have already suggested how heroism—the quest for great deeds that might earn eternal glory for those who accomplish them—occupies a central place in the mental universe of the Greeks. It means defeating the very finitude that defines human life through glorious actions and thereby gaining a particular sort of eternity. And it is through what is written about him that the permanence of the hero is assured: if he succeeds in becoming the subject of a myth, of a legend that mythographers and historians record thereafter in black and white, so to speak, the hero will survive the fate of ordinary mortals, whose memory is effaced completely by death. The hero will be remembered for a long time, perhaps forever. He will retain his singularity, which death strips from ordinary mortals and renders them entirely anonymous. The shades that haunt the kingdom of Hades are without names or faces. They have lost all individuality. To remain forever a person, if only in the memory of others, requires merit: glory is not obtained easily. It can be acquired in the conduct of war, as with Achilles, the most valorous of all Greeks. Or through acts of courage, cunning, and intelligence, as with Odysseus, who manages to survive the innumerable pitfalls laid for him by Poseidon in the course of his voyage. But greater still is the glory attaching to the hero who has fought in the service of a divine mission, in the name of justice, or dikè, in order to defend the cosmic order against the archaic forces of chaos, whose resurgence is an ever-present threat. It is of this species of heroism that I will now speak, by considering the greatest heroes of mythology: Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason. As we shall see, their cosmic adventures are well worth a detour.
I. Heracles: how a demigod carries out the task
allotted to him by Zeus, eliminating the monstrous
beings that threaten the harmony of the world
The legend of Heracles—who will become Hercules for the Romans—is one of the earliest in Greek mythology. Homer and Hesiod already speak of him, which indicates that the story was certainly well established by the seventh or eighth centuries BC. Heracles is also by far the most celebrated of Greek heroes—for his legendary strength, his unfailing courage, his fabulous exploits, and his sense of justice, or dikè. Many thousands of pages have been devoted to him, likewise innumerable paintings, statues, poems, stories, and films. From antiquity onward, all mythographers, poets, tragedians, and even philosophers have presented or represented, each after their fashion, the exploits of his life … to the point that the events that mark the course of his story are all, without exception, subject to the widest possible range of versions and variations. Not a single exploit of this hero, not a moment of his existence, including even the origin of his name, has not been subject to multiple interpretations—as if the Greek imagination is almost boundlessly enabled and enlarged by contemplation of this story.
This is why we must not trust to accounts that tell the life of Heracles as a stable and linear sequence of events: a single narrative the elements of which are generally accepted. To do so is to court deception. There are only three aspects of the myth upon which the many different versions seem to agree, and then only approximately so: the birth of Heracles, his celebrated “twelve labors,” and his death, followed by his “apotheosis,” or deification, his passage from mortal man to immortal god. It is these three episodes that I would like to recount, as clearly as possible, but without eliding the variations between different versions and in each case indicating the sources I have chosen to follow. I will select what seem to me to be the most suggestive and profound versions of the story—in other words, those that seem to have contributed to a common culture within the Greek world. For it is this that matters most, if we wish to understand how the legend of Heracles was able on several fronts to provide a model of wisdom that philosophy, and particularly Stoicism, would subsequently adapt for its own purposes, endowing it with a rational dimension.
The birth of Heracles and the
origin of his name
A poem written probably in the sixth century BC, and long attributed to Hesiod, contains the earliest detailed description of the fabulous story of the birth of Heracles. The poem is simply titled “The Shield” because it is mostly devoted to describing this item in the warrior’s equipment of the hero. From the opening lines, we learn by what means—somewhat devious, it has to be said—Zeus managed to seduce the ravishing nymph Alcmena, a mortal who was married to a certain Amphitryon, before fathering Heracles upon her. The child was to be a “demigod,” in the specific sense employed by the Greeks: the son of an immortal father and mortal mother. Above all, the poem gives us an important insight into the intentions of Zeus. Just for once, it was not simply a case of diverting himself by making love to a pretty girl—as Hesiod is at pains to make clear:
The father of men and gods was forming another scheme in his heart: to beget one who would defend against destruction both gods and men.
“Defend against destruction”—such is the principal role of our hero. But against what kind of danger? And why would Zeus need a deputy, like a sheriff in a Western? In effect, with Heracles it is more of a lieutenant that Zeus creates, someone able to “take the place” on earth of the ruler of the gods, and to assist him down here in his struggle against the continual resurgence of the forces of chaos—the distant legacy of the original Titans. It is with this struggle, of course, that the legend of Heracles will be centrally concerned. You will no doubt be wondering about the reality of these forces. Is it not simplistic to speak, like a latter-day politician, of “the forces of evil,” on the one hand, and on the other hand the forces for good (by which is meant, as it happens, one’s very own party)? In truth, we are very far from this caricature. For we must understand that in this archaic period, clearly legendary, when gods are not yet quite separated off from mortals—the proof of which is that they still sleep with them and have children by them—we are still very close to the origins of things: close to the primordial chaos and the great “titanic” combats that led to the construction of the cosmos. Zeus has only recently conquered Typhon, the last monster to threaten the order of the world, and on earth mini-Typhons resurface continually, here or there, threatening to seize power, and continually need putting in their place. Which, given their strength and the terror they inspire in ordinary mortals, is far from easy… .
Hence, precisely, the essential task that Zeus entrusts to Heracles, whose role is to continue in this sublunary world the work achieved by Zeus elsewhere, and on another scale, involving the cosmos as a whole. The entire existence of Heracles will be dedicated to struggling in the name of dikè—a just order—against injustice, against magical and baleful entities, often sprung directly from Typhon himself, who in however many guises always embodies the possibility of a resurgent disorder. But an important clarification is needed here. It would be a category error to understand the word “disorder” in its modern sense, usually drawn from law enforcement, as when we speak of “the forces of order” to indicate the police or “offences against public order” to indicate a street demonstration. What we are speaking of in the present context is an “order” understood in a cosmological sense. It is the harmony of all things that is otherwise in doubt, and the forces of disorder are not street demonstrators but magical beings, often engendered by aberrant deities, whose behavior menaces the organization of the universe and universal justice as instigated by Zeus at the time of his famous division of kingdoms. As a corollary, we must understand the preservation of order as even less a business of simple policing than a weighing of mortal man’s purpose on this earth. For if the good life consists in finding our place in the universe and, on the model of Odysseus, at all costs finding our way back to the right place, then a great deal must depend on this order itself being intact and enduring. In the absence of that, the meaning of human life as such collapses and, with it, all possibility of a search for wisdom.
This is why Stoic philosophy, which represents the summit of Greek thought, saw in the figure of Heracles a tutelary spirit, a sort of godparent. The underlying idea that informs Stoicism is that the world, the cosmos, is divine in the sense of being harmonious, beautiful, just, and good.* According to which nothing is better appointed than the natural order, and our mortal mission on earth is to preserve it, find our place in it, and adjust ourselves to it. It is within this perspective that the founders of Stoicism thought of Heracles as their precursor. Cleanthes, one of the very first scholarchs or directors of the Stoic school, preferred to be described as a “second Heracles”; Epictetus, at several points in his writings, maintains that Heracles is a god living on earth, one of those beings responsible for the elaboration and preservation of the divine order of the world. The philosophical consequences of the adventures of Heracles are therefore considerable, in which case there is nothing surprising about his exploits provoking such imaginative richness of interpretation and giving rise to such a variety of accounts. This is why I shall try to give some idea of their extraordinary diversity, even if this sometimes makes my narrative itself a little less straightforward and linear.
But let us return for a moment to the beginning of the story, to the famous stratagem employed by Zeus to conceive Heracles. For this setting, described several times by Homer, is far from merely anecdotal. It possesses numerous and important consequences for the future career of the hero.
Alcmena, the mortal woman who will become Heracles’s mother, has just married Amphitryon. They are first cousins. Their fathers are brothers, and sons of another famous Greek hero, Perseus. Perseus is therefore the great-grandfather of Heracles, and was in his own right a famous slayer of monsters, having triumphed over the terrible Gorgon Medusa in the course of a series of adventures to which we shall return again shortly. Now it so happens that the brothers of Alcmena have been killed in a war against tribes who were referred to at the time as the Taphians and the Teleboans. Let us leave the details to one side: Alcmena loves Amphitryon, her husband and cousin, but she has forbidden him her bed until such time as he has avenged her brothers, which is why Amphitryon goes off to wage war against these famous Taphians and Teleboans. All the while, Zeus is observing events from the heights of Olympus. He sees Amphitryon conducting himself admirably as a warrior in combat, achieving victory and getting ready to return home to tell his wife of his exploits. As a result of which, Amphitryon has high hopes of finally sharing his wife’s bed. It is at this moment that Zeus has his brain wave about Heracles. He disguises himself as Amphitryon. Quite simply, he becomes the latter’s indistinguishable double and enters the home of Alcmena as if he were her returning husband. He even has the nerve to boast to her of his exploits, as if it were he (rather than Amphitryon) who had accomplished them. According to some versions, he even goes so far as to offer Alcmena jewels and other trophies snatched for her from the enemy. Grateful for what has been accomplished on her behalf—the avenging of her brothers—and seduced by a husband so manifestly courageous, Alcmena agrees to share her bed with him, or rather with Zeus, who without more ado impregnates her, the issue of which will be little Heracles.
This setting for the myth gives rise in the literature to an impressive number of different versions, but the basic framework remains more or less the same, and is as I have described. We should also add that when the true Amphitryon returns home he also sleeps with his wife and gives her a child, Iphicles, who will become the twin brother of Heracles, although having a different father.
Some versions claim that Zeus slows or stretches time itself so that his own night with Alcmena lasts three times longer than a normal night—no doubt to take advantage of his opportunity since Alcmena is, as I have said, ravishingly beautiful, but also to delay the return of Amphitryon. Other versions frequently relate the astonishment of the returning husband when he realizes that she already knows about all of his exploits before he tells them, and is even (which completely confounds him) already in possession of the trophies he brought back for her … but which he has not yet had the chance to offer her! These details of the story do not properly matter. What does count is that Heracles will be born, and out of wedlock rather than born of Hera, the legitimate wife of Zeus—and that Hera will become mad with rage when she discovers that Alcmena is pregnant by her husband.
You will have noticed perhaps that the two names—Hera and Heracles—resemble each other closely, or rather that one is a contraction of the other, and there is indeed a link between them. Etymologically, Heracles means “glory of Hera,” and this part of the myth also needs explication as a vital link between the principal adventures of the hero.
In the beginning, and on this point all the sources agree, Heracles was called Alcides, meaning “son of Alcaeus,” in memory of his grandfather, whose name means “the strong one.” However, as with all aspects of the life of Heracles, different versions variously explain the reason for the change of name. Basically, two alternative explanations are usually offered—as if these events concerned an actual historical individual, whereas we are, of course, dealing with an entirely mythical and legendary being, one who never existed. This in turn suggests that the Greeks attended closely to these stories and took them very seriously—if not literally, at the least for their significance as wisdom literature. The earliest explanation of the name can be ascribed to the poet Pindar,* who claims that Hera herself baptized our hero, but for a fairly inverted reason: since she is eaten away by jealousy, and rancorous at being deceived yet again by Zeus, she conceives an abiding hatred for the new offspring. It is Hera who will devise the celebrated twelve labors, hoping to dispose of Heracles as quickly as possible by sending him to combat monsters against whom no human being has ever managed to prevail. Now it so happens that Heracles succeeds, not only victoriously but crowned with glory of an unprecedented kind. What is more, the demigod and the goddess will end by being reconciled, after the death of Heracles, when he is transformed into a true god and welcomed to Olympus. So it is thanks to Hera, so to speak, that Heracles will become renowned throughout the world—not only because his glory is entirely dedicated to Hera but also because, however paradoxically, he owes it all to her. Whence his name: Hera-kleos, “glory of Hera.”
We find, notably in Apollodorus, a slightly different explanation for the origin of the name, but one that nevertheless coincides with Pindar. Even before starting on his famous labors, Heracles has occasion to perform a considerable service to Creon, the king of Thebes who had succeeded another equally celebrated figure of mythology, Oedipus. In exchange, or at least as a sign of recognition, Creon offers Heracles the hand of his daughter Megara in marriage. Heracles marries her and has three children. They live together happily, it seems, until out of jealousy Hera casts a spell on Heracles to drive him out of his mind, and violently so. The spell works, and overcome by a terrible frenzy, a momentary fit of madness for which he is no way responsible, Heracles throws his three children on the fire and, for good measure, kills two of his nephews, children of his “twin half brother,” Iphicles. Returning to his senses, he sees the horror of what he has done and condemns himself to exile. He arrives in a neighboring town, in order to be “purified” there, as is the custom: by means of a ceremony, a priest or god could, in effect “cleanse” a perpetrator of his fault when a grave crime such as murder has been committed—rather as Midas washes himself in the source of the river Pactolus. Once the ritual has been accomplished, Heracles travels to Delphi to consult the oracle, and (according to Apollodorus) it is the oracle or Pythian priestess who gives him the premonitory name of Heracles—“glory of Hera”—commanding him to place himself in the service of the goddess in order to accomplish the twelve labors, which represent the impossible tasks she will impose on him through the intermediary of his cousin, the frightful taskmaster Eurystheus (about whom more in a moment). The oracle adds that Heracles, after accomplishing these tasks, will become immortal—not only glorified but actually transformed into a god.
Whatever the case, these two versions are not as remote from each other as they might seem. In both cases, in effect, Heracles works for the glory of Hera, and her glory insists upon his accomplishing the impossible tasks that she imposes out of jealousy, to avenge herself on his very existence, which bears permanent witness to the infidelity of Zeus.
Two final remarks, before coming to the earliest exploits of Heracles, which precede the twelve labors and which he accomplishes quasi-miraculously while still an infant.
Firstly and anecdotally, but nonetheless suggestive about the interlocking of all these stories, you will note that Heracles, strange as it may seem, is both the great-grandson and the younger brother of his great-grandfather Perseus! In effect, albeit several generations apart, they both share the same father, namely Zeus: immortality makes possible for gods what is inconceivable for humans. Symbolically, it also makes a connection between two separate myths and, as in the game of happy families, links individuals with similar attributes, in this case Perseus and Heracles: both are destroyers of monsters, and both carry on—in their different ways, of course—the work of their father.
My second remark concerns the “Herculean” origins of the Milky Way.* As always, there are several ways of recounting this famous legend concerning the earliest months in the life of our hero. One of these, which seems to stand out as the most dominant, serves to remind us that to become an Immortal—which is the destiny of Heracles, as confirmed to him by the oracle at Delphi—one must swallow the food of the gods, particularly ambrosia. Moreover, in Greek the word “ambrosia” simply means “nonmortal”: a-(m)-brotoi. It is with this in view that Hermes is charged by Zeus to place the infant Heracles at the breast of Hera while she sleeps. However, on waking during this operation, Hera is seized with horror to find herself suckling this infant who reminds her now and forever of the infidelity of Zeus. She pushes it away violently, and drops of her milk spurt across the sky to form the Milky Way. Diodorus tells a slightly different version: Heracles was placed at the breast of Hera by Athena, but already too strong, he suckled a little too vigorously, at which point she tore him from her breast, thereby giving birth to the Milky Way. These variations have the same outcome: the birth of the celebrated starry highway. I mention them here simply to give an idea of how differently, from antiquity onward, the same mythological stories are set out, according to epoch, author, and region. Nonetheless, from this diversity arises, in broad terms at least, a common and coherent culture that the mythographers transmit to the philosophers—rather as, in our own tradition, fairy tales develop variations from a common ground. After all, between the story of Cinderella as told by Grimm and the same story as told by Perrault, there are more than incidental differences, yet the framework remains fundamentally the same.
Let us consider now the exploits that punctuate the earliest years of our hero, well before he accomplishes the twelve labors for the glory of Hera that will make him famous for all eternity.
The first exploits of a demigod
These are generally agreed as numbering five. Here they are, reduced to essentials.*
There is in the first place the famous story of the two serpents, which serves at once to show the divine origin of Heracles (which explains his extraordinary infant precocity) and to establish the significance of his mission on earth: to eliminate evil forces, in particular those that suggested to the Greek imagination the legacy of Typhon. Here is how Apollodorus describes the episode and, in doing so, offers both of the most familiar versions—which proves in passing that ancient mythographers were already aware of the importance of variants between these legends, as bringing different perspectives to the same story, enabling the audience better to understand their meaning and significance:
When Heracles was eight months old, Hera, wanting to destroy the infant, sent two huge serpents to his bed. Alcmene cried out for Amphitryon to help, but Heracles leapt up and killed the serpents by strangling them, one in each hand. However, Pherecydes says it was Amphitryon who placed the serpents in the bed, because he wanted to know which of the children was his own; and seeing that Iphicles fled while Heracles stood his ground, he realized that Iphicles was his child… .
What is clear from both versions, once again, is that the infant is already launched on his career as a hero. Archaic paintings depict the scene in epic terms, moreover: we see Heracles, still an infant, grasping in each hand a serpent that he throttles… . One has to admit that, for a child of eight months, it betokens superhuman force.
The next two exploits focus upon an episode concerning a lion.
Once upon a time, in the region around Thebes, birthplace of Heracles, a terrifying lion is decimating the flocks of Amphitryon, the human father of Heracles, but also those of one Thespius, a neighbor and friend of the family. I have omitted to mention that Amphitryon is also an extremely decent man, in every sense: both courageous and kindly. He has accepted, as was usual at this time, the bad news of the divine paternity of his wife’s child: after all, Alcmena did not knowingly betray him, and the decisions of the all-powerful Zeus, whatever they might involve, are final and sacred. This is why Amphitryon raises little Heracles as his son. And the latter returns his affections. Seeing the flocks of his earthly father and Thespius being decimated by this lion, Heracles, who is by now eighteen years of age and possessed of prodigious stature and strength, does not hesitate: he fetches his weapons and sets off in pursuit of the lion. So as to be closer to the whereabouts of his prey, he presents himself at the home of Thespius, who is only too happy to offer him hospitality. For fifty days Heracles tracks the lion tirelessly. Every evening he returns to the house of Thespius—who manages each night to slip one of his many daughters into Heracles’s bed. A little fatigued by his daily hikes into the mountains, Heracles does not pay too much attention: he thinks that each night he is sleeping with the same girl. He makes this mistake fifty times—which is convenient for Thespius, since this is exactly the number of nights that Heracles spends in his house, being the time it takes him to find and ultimately slay the lion in the course of a dreadful combat. And from these fifty nocturnal unions fifty sons will be born!
This already adds up to three exploits: killing a serpent at eight months of age, slaying a lion at eighteen years of age—and, at the same age, fathering fifty sons in fifty nights!
The two other exploits of the young Heracles are not quite exploits, in the positive sense. They bear witness rather to the dark side of Heracles, his Titanesque aspect: not merely powerful but also unrestrainedly violent. This is an important point, and it applies to all gods, and all heroes, and—in its chemically pure state, so to speak—is embodied by Dionysus: there is no struggle for order without brutality, no combat on behalf of the cosmos without brute violence. The sudden madness of Heracles is but one example of this, as is his bloodlust: his capacity to kill and kill again, without fear, but also without shame or restraint.
On his way home from pursuing the lion, Heracles encounters messengers from the king of Boeotia, one Erginus, who, after achieving victory in his war against the city of Thebes, has required that for the next twenty years the inhabitants pay an annual tribute of one hundred cattle as war reparations. Unfortunately for him, Heracles was born in Thebes and naturally thinks the tribute is unjust. As is his wont, he does not waste words: he catches hold of the messengers by the scruff of the neck and, by way of discussion, cuts off their noses, ears, and hands. Then he makes a necklace of the body parts, hangs it around their necks, and sends them all bloodied back to Erginus, with instructions that this is the only tribute the Thebans intend ever to pay him! As you may imagine, Erginus is not overjoyed. He assembles his troops and goes to war against the Thebans once more. Except that this time the latter have Heracles on their side, who makes short work of the entire army of Erginus. Unfortunately, Amphitryon is killed in battle. But this is also the moment at which, by way of thanks, Creon, king of Thebes, offers Heracles his daughter Megara’s hand in marriage, of which we have already spoken… .
This fourth exploit gives us pause. Of course, there is no doubt that Heracles has acted in the name of justice in defending his city and his king. But we see also a terrible violence at work, if not outright bloodlust: all of his life will be marked by these repeated murders and acts of slaughter.
As for the last of the early “exploits,” it is even more worrying, confirming as it does this dark side of his nature. During his childhood, Heracles receives a thorough education. Amphitryon shows him how to drive a chariot. Castor, the illustrious brother of Pollux, teaches him the handling of arms, and a variety of excellent soldiers teach him archery, hand-to-hand combat, and the other arts of war… . As for what might be termed the “humanities,” however, Heracles does not exactly have a gift for arts and letters. He has a music teacher, Linus, who is none other than the brother of Orpheus, the greatest musician of all time. But one day, when Linus reprimands him a little too harshly, the little Heracles loses his temper and in short order he strikes and kills the unfortunate tutor with a well-directed blow from his zither! Heracles is brought to justice, but pleading self-defense—Linus, exasperated by his playing, had smacked him—he is finally acquitted. Heracles is very strong, perhaps too strong. In a certain sense, might is always right, and he possesses courage enough for any trial. But he is not tenderhearted, and he is no poet… . What he is most certainly is a soldier of Zeus, as he will prove in spectacular fashion when it comes to the twelve labors imposed on him by Hera.
The twelve labors
A few words, first, about the exact origin, significance, and number of these famous labors, which constitute without doubt the most celebrated story in the whole of Greek mythology.
In the first place, we are told that in order to assure herself of her power over Heracles and impose these tasks on him, in the course of which she firmly expects him to be killed, Hera herself resorts to a stratagem that matches those of her husband. The latter, who sees that the birth of his son is imminent, declares somewhat hastily before the assembly of the gods that the first descendant of Perseus to see the light of day will become king of Mycenae, one of the most important cities of the Peloponnese, which according to legend was founded by none other than Perseus. In saying this, Zeus is obviously thinking of Heracles, for whom he foresees a royal destiny. But Hera takes him at his word. In her jealousy she delays the delivery of Alcmena, and at the same time brings forward the birth of a certain Eurystheus—a first cousin of Heracles—who is also a descendant of Perseus. Eurystheus is born at seven months, whereas Heracles stays in his mother’s womb for ten months, so his cousin beats him to the finish line and is set to become king of Mycenae. According to custom, Heracles now owes Eurystheus obeisance, and Hera makes of the latter her military arm: it is Eurystheus who will assign his labors to Heracles, and who will send him off each time to the four corners of the world to confront the worst perils, in the hope that he will succumb to one or another of them. Eurystheus is always described in the legends as a feeble individual, a poor wimp of no importance, quite the opposite of his cousin. He fills the role of a miserable coward perfectly.
Secondly, the “cosmic” significance of the labors of Heracles is attested as much by the equipment he uses in his combats as by the missions that the ignoble Eurystheus assigns to him for each labor. As the majority of mythographers insist, it is the gods themselves—and not any old gods but the Olympians—who furnish Heracles with his arms. According to Apollodorus, it is Athena who is his first benefactor; Hermes who teaches him archery and provides him with the necessaries, not just his bow but also his quiver and arrows; while Hephaestus for his part goes to the expense of a sumptuous present: a golden breastplate that he has forged himself with all the skill for which he is renowned. For good measure, Athena once more adds a magnificent cloak, and our hero finds himself thus fully equipped for his future adventures. This is no trivial matter: it signifies that Heracles is, manifestly, a representative of the gods on earth. Quite obviously, his mission is divinely ordained or—the same thing as far as the Greek mind is concerned—is of cosmic importance: not only is his father Zeus behind and beside him but also the whole of Olympus.*
As for the missions to which he will be assigned, we shall see that they belong almost without exception to a realm beyond the normal, to a world that is properly speaking supernatural—which suggests, once again, that the combat waged by Heracles is directed first and foremost against forces of destruction that are themselves far from ordinary but variously represent the resurgence of Chaos, of the Titans, indeed of Typhon himself. In short, the archaic forces that Zeus himself was obliged to thwart… .
As to there being twelve labors, finally, it was only in the first century BC that the figure twelve became the established number, agreed upon by all mythographers. In archaic Greece, the number of labors varied. In Apollodorus, there are at the start only ten labors, but Eurystheus—who is as bad a player as he is a loser—discounts two of these, namely the slaying of the Lernaean hydra and the cleansing of the Augean stables, on the grounds that Heracles is assisted or paid in kind for these exploits. As a result, Eurystheus adds two further labors, which still brings us to a total of twelve, a number that was never disputed thereafter.
Let us now get to the heart of the matter.*
First of all—and this, together with the cleansing of the Augean stables, is without doubt the most familiar of the labors—there is the famous combat between Heracles and the lion of Nemea, a village in the surroundings of Argos. Eurystheus, the puppet of Hera and by this time king of Mycenae, has asked his illustrious cousin to bring him back the skin of the lion. What merits attention above all in this story is the nature of the beast Heracles has to tackle. Naturally, the creature is terrifying. It has been ravaging the region known as Argolis, decimating its flocks, and also devouring any humans it encounters in its path. But there is more. Its essential characteristic is that this animal is not in effect an animal at all. It is no ordinary lion that Heracles must confront but truly a monster, whose parents are in no sense lions. Its father is none other than Typhon himself, and its mother, according to some, is Echidna, the terrifying half-woman, half-serpent who serves Typhon for a wife. The point is crucial, testifying vividly to the real nature of Heraclean combat, which has nothing to do with the ordinary pursuit of an animal, however savage and dangerous. Heracles is a Zeus in miniature: if the latter has confronted Typhon, it is now the turn of the former to confront Typhon’s progeny. What proves the monstrous and supernatural aspect of the Nemean lion is its skin—which Eurystheus so much covets. The hide possesses a remarkable attribute, possessed by no mortal animal: nothing can pierce it, neither arrow, nor sword, nor dagger, no matter how sharpened and pointed the blade might be. And this renders the monster all the more formidable, for it is invulnerable to being hunted… .
Despite all his talent for archery, Heracles must therefore renounce his usual arms: arrows will rebound off this animal’s hide, and sword strokes will slide off its body like water off a duck’s back. So Heracles must draw on his own deepest resources: his strength and courage, which are both supranatural and quasi-divine. This lion inhabits a cave that has two entrances joined by a long corridor. Our hero blocks up one of the entrances with an enormous boulder and advances headlong into the other. When the lion hurls itself upon him, Heracles seizes it by the throat and squeezes so hard and for so long that the lion is finally suffocated, at which point Heracles drags it by its tail out of the cave, where he manages to flay the creature and make a sort of cloak from its hide to serve as armor, while from its head he makes himself a helmet.
When Eurystheus sees Heracles returning victorious in this outfit he nearly faints. He is rooted to the spot with terror, for if Heracles is capable of dispatching the Nemean lion, it is clear that Eurystheus must be warier than before. Paralyzed with fear, this cardboard king forbids Heracles ever again to enter the city. Henceforth, the returning Heracles—assuming he manages to return again (let us not forget the hopes of getting rid of him for good one day)—must deposit his trophies at the foot of the ramparts, beyond the city gates. Apollodorus even specifies that, in the grip of fear, Eurystheus orders the construction of a sort of huge bronze jar, which is then placed underground, in which he plans to hide should events take a turn for the worse.*
For the time being, if he is to get rid of Heracles, Eurystheus must come up with a second trial, even more fearful than the first. So he now requires Heracles to go and slay a hydra that inhabits the region of Lerna. Here again, there is nothing natural about this hydra. In effect, what we refer to today by the name “hydra” is a small and harmless freshwater polyp, a centimeter and a half long, rather like a sea anemone and endowed with a dozen stinging tentacles that grow back when they are cut. Nothing to worry about. But the Lernaean hydra has little in common with anything to be encountered in the “natural” order. It is truly a gigantic monster, armed with nine heads that grow back as soon as they are chopped off—except that two heads reappear for every one that is severed! This creature likewise terrorizes and lays waste to the countryside, killing anything that comes in range, whether human or animal. Hesiod in the Theogony gives us some precious information about the creature. Firstly, as with the Nemean lion, we are dealing with a monster born of the embraces of Typhon and Echidna: here again, the link with the labors of Zeus is clear. Secondly, it is Hera who in her anger has been responsible for causing the creature to be raised so as to unleash it one day against Heracles.
Here is how Apollodorus describes the victory of Heracles over the hydra:
As a second labour, Eurystheus ordered Heracles to kill the Lernaean hydra; this creature had grown up in the swamp of Lerna, and was used to making incursions into the plain, destroying the cattle and the countryside. This hydra had a body of enormous size, with nine heads, of which eight were mortal, but the one in the centre immortal. So climbing onto a chariot driven by Iolaus [his nephew], Heracles made his way to Lerna. Halting his horses there, he discovered the hydra on a hill by the springs of Amymone, where it had its lair. By hurling flaming brands at it, he forced it to emerge, and as it came out, he seized it and held it fast. But it twined itself round one of his legs, and clung to him. Nor could he effect anything by striking the hydra’s heads off with his club, for as soon as one was struck off, two grew up in its place; and a huge crab came to its assistance by biting Heracles on the foot. So he killed the crab, and in his turn summoned assistance by calling Iolaus, who set fire to part of the neighbouring forest, and using brands from it, burned out the roots of the hydra’s heads to stop them regrowing. And when, by this means, he had prevailed over the sprouting heads, he cut off the immortal head, buried it, and placed a heavy rock over it by the road that leads from Lerna to Elaeus. As for the body of the hydra, he slit it open and dipped his arrows in its gall. Eurystheus declared, however, that this labour should not be counted among the ten, because Heracles had not overcome the hydra on his own, but only with the help of Iolaus.
After these two exploits, which, despite the dishonesty of Eurystheus, earn him a considerable reputation throughout Greece, Heracles dispatches or at least gets the better of a series of monsters disguised as animals. I will not recount all of these stories, whose pattern is identical and which, moreover, are easily encountered elsewhere. There is the Ceryneian hind, the wild boar of Erymanthus, the Stymphalian birds, the Cretan bull, the mares of Diomedes, Cerberus (the selfsame hound of Hades, who guards the entrance to the underworld, with three heads and a serpent’s tail), and so forth. What is worth noting in all these accounts is not so much the events as such, which are in each case the same (a monstrous beast terrorizes a whole region, and Heracles invariably overcomes it), but rather the supernatural and malevolent aspect of the creatures that he confronts. Aside from the wild boar of Erymanthus, which is merely possessed of exceptional strength and an aggression never encountered in nature (and which is, moreover, scarcely mentioned in earlier sources compiled before the fifth century)—these monsters are both maleficent and magical: the hind is gigantic, with golden antlers; the feathers of the birds are of bronze and as sharp as razors; as for the bull, different classical mythographers sometimes identify it with the one sent from the sea by Poseidon to enable Minos to become king of Crete, sometimes with the bull that carried off Europa (the lovely nymph after whom Zeus lusted), sometimes with the bull with whom Minos’s wife Pasiphae fell in love, or sometimes even with the bull of Marathon. In all of these cases, supernatural creatures are involved, whose parents are neither cows nor bulls, as happens in nature, but gods who divert themselves by consorting with mortals. The mares of Diomedes are worse still: these are horses that have been cast under a spell and eat human flesh—which no horse in the natural order of things could acquire a taste for since they are all herbivores. Nor can Cerberus be said to belong to the sublunary world. There is nothing monstrous as such about the cattle of Geryon, but their owner—whom Heracles must confront in order to steal the cattle—is the son of Poseidon and the terrifying Medusa. As for Geryon’s dog, Orthrus, who guards the herd and whom naturally Heracles must also slay, here is yet another monster who has nothing in common with an actual dog, given that he has two heads and is likewise—the theme linking Heracles to the labors of Zeus pervades these stories—the offspring of Typhon and Echidna.
In other words, the forces against which Heracles struggles are well and truly out of this world, not to say supernatural, and are the corollary of those Zeus himself had to confront before the division of the world and the definitive creation of the cosmos. Divine does not necessarily mean a force for good: there are evil gods, like Chaos, like the Titans, like Typhon. Besides, the Lernaean hydra, one of whose heads is immortal, is overpowered in exactly the same manner employed by Zeus to overcome Typhon: just as Zeus succeeds in neutralizing Typhon not by killing him—which is impossible—but by burying him beneath Mount Etna, so likewise it is by placing a permanent boulder over its nonmortal head that Heracles succeeds in ridding the cosmos of the hydra. Let us add that Hera is sometimes mentioned explicitly as the one who, if not exactly creating this or that “animal,” is nonetheless arranging matters so that it will cross the path of the hero whom she still wants dead at all costs.
The Nemean lion, the Lernaean hydra, the wild boar of Erymanthus, the Ceryneian hind, the Stymphalian birds, the Cerberean hound, the Cretan bull, the mares of Diomedes, the cattle of Geryon guarded by the frightful Orthrus … we have already counted nine labors.
The three remaining, of which I have not yet spoken—the belt worn by the Amazon queen Hippolyta, the golden apples of the Hesperides, the stables of Augeas—have a different aspect altogether. Here it is no longer a question of overcoming monsters disguised as noxious animals but, more straightforwardly, of accomplishing a task reputed to be impossible. Here, more so than in the other exploits, the notion of the “labor” finds its deeper application: what is at issue first and foremost is a dangerous and impossible mission, certainly, but one in which the monstrous is neither the primary nor the only factor. We leave behind the familiar scenario of a victorious struggle against a malevolent being that is, more or less, a descendant of Typhon.
Nonetheless the violent forces of chaos remain ever present, in the background. This is certainly the case with the Amazons, those uncompromising warriors whose right breasts are removed in childhood so as not to compromise their subsequent mastery of the bow and the javelin. For his labor involving the Amazons, it is not so much Eurystheus who imposes a new chore upon Heracles as his daughter Admete, who throws a tantrum: she absolutely must have the famously magnificent belt of Hippolyta, the Amazon queen. Now it so happens that this belt was given to Hippolyta by Ares himself, the god of war, so one might suppose it would prove difficult for Heracles to wrest it from its owner. However, against all expectations, when he arrives in embassy before the queen (after many adventures that I shall not repeat here), she quite willingly makes him a gift of the ornament. But Hera will have none of it. She now takes on the appearance of an Amazon—for the gods can metamorphose themselves at will—and spreads the rumor among the other Amazons that Heracles has come in enmity, to abduct their queen, which is of course quite false. Immediately a fierce battle breaks out between Heracles’s followers and the Amazons, in the course of which Hippolyta is killed by Heracles.
As for the famous golden apples of the Hesperides—one of which, as you will recall, was thrown by Eris on the marriage table of Thetis and Peleus—here again we are dealing with a magical fruit, such as is not encountered in the natural order. These very particular apples are of gold, and grow as such on their tree, for good reason: the tree was the wedding gift offered by Gaia to Hera on the day of her marriage to Zeus. The queen of the gods thought them so beautiful that she planted the tree in a garden situated on the confines of the actual world, on Mount Atlas, the mountain that is also itself a god: the famous Titan named Atlas, brother of Epimetheus and of Prometheus, on whose shoulders the world rests. Hera is forever fearful that someone will come and steal her apples. She has therefore placed two sorts of guardian at the entrance to the garden. There are first of all three nymphs, called the Hesperides—“daughters of Hesperis,” who is herself the daughter of Hesperus, the evening star. These divinities, moreover, have names that evoke the colors of sunset: Aegle (“dazzling light”), Erytheia (“the red one”), Arethusa (“of the setting sun”)… . But as Hera was not quite certain of her nymphs, she added a second guardian: an immortal dragon who is, of course, yet another of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, standing as ever in the path of Heracles. It is during this expedition in search of the golden apples that Heracles will liberate Prometheus from his chains by killing with his bow and arrow the famous eagle—likewise a son of Typhon and Echidna—that devours the liver of Prometheus.
Interestingly, it is not by force but through cunning that Heracles succeeds in stealing the apples of Hera—proof that he is well and truly the son of Zeus. Having been freed by Heracles, Prometheus is only too happy to show him what he has been seeking for more than a year: the exact location of the famous garden of the Hesperides. This is easily done since it is where Prometheus’s brother Atlas resides. Prometheus advises Heracles not to steal the apples himself—this would be an unpardonable act of theft—but to send Atlas in his stead. When he encounters Atlas, Heracles therefore proposes a deal: he offers to hold the world on his shoulders, in place of Atlas, while the latter goes and fetches the apples. Atlas accepts, and by the time he returns he has begun to feel somewhat relieved of his burden, and is starting to realize how agreeable life would be without it and how tired he is of straining to keep heaven and earth apart for all eternity. Which is understandable. So he tells Heracles that, on reflection, he will go off and deliver the apples to Eurystheus himself. We should bear in mind that, during this time, Heracles has been bearing the weight of the heavenly vault on his shoulders, and must at all costs find a way of handing it back to Atlas. Quite casually, and without attracting suspicion, he agrees to what Atlas proposes. He merely adds that, if Atlas will be so kind as to take back his burden for a moment, Heracles will grab hold of a small cushion to put behind his head so that he is more comfortable. Atlas is strong but also slow-witted: he falls into the trap and takes the world back on his shoulders, whereupon Heracles takes his leave and returns to Eurystheus with the apples, leaving poor Atlas to his unenviable lot.
The end of the story is quite revealing: when he holds the apples in his hand, Eurystheus scarcely glances at them but hands them straight back to Heracles, which proves—if proof were still needed—that the object of these exploits is to kill the hero straightforwardly, and that what Heracles reaps from his labors is of no intrinsic interest. Moreover, it is strictly forbidden for anyone to steal these apples, which must absolutely remain in their cosmic garden. Heracles now gives them to Athena, who puts them back as quickly as possible, so that the order of things is undisturbed… .
I have kept the story of the Augean stables until last (although Apollodorus places it as the fifth of the labors) because this exploit does not resemble the others. No monster is involved, no offspring of Typhon and Echidna, no other supernatural beings … and yet the struggle between order and disorder is no less omnipresent.
First, through the figure of Augeas himself, who is king of a region named Elis (in the western Peloponnese) and who also turns out to be a king of injustice as well as of disorder. He possesses immense herds of cattle given to him by his father: Helios, the sun god. But since taking over, Augeas has never bothered to clean out his stables. And they are now mired in scarcely imaginable squalor, which threatens to pollute the entire region. The manure is never carted away, and is piled high over the neighboring lands, so as to render them barren. What we are dealing here with here is a major disorder, a natural catastrophe on a considerable scale. Heracles refrains from telling Augeas that he has been sent to clean up the mess. In effect, he wants to be paid for this labor, which he now understands has been imposed on him not—in this instance—so as to put an end to him (the hero’s existence is not threatened, after all) but to humiliate him, to reduce him to the level of a slave who must dirty his hands in this mire. So Heracles wants to be paid—and he demands, according to Apollodorus, a tenth of Augeas’s cattle if he manages to clean out all of the stables in a single day. To which Augeas agrees, not because he is a lover of cleanliness and would like to tidy up the region but because he takes Heracles for a fool and does not credit any of his promises. He is merely curious to see what will happen. Let us add here that, in addition to being paid, Heracles has no intention of getting his hands dirty. He is no slave but a demigod, the son of Zeus. Here again, cunning will be added to strength. Before setting to work, Heracles makes a large breach in the principal wall of the cattle yard containing the stables, and then a second breach in the opposing wall. Next, he digs a wide trench between two rivers flowing nearby, the Alpheus and the Peneus, and diverts the surging waters into the front of the stable yards and out the rear, flushing all the filth along with it. So within a few hours the stables are as clean as a new pin!
However, as I said, Augeas is not only a filth merchant but also a liar: when he discovers that Heracles has been sent by Eurystheus, he refuses to pay him, although the former has fulfilled his side of the bargain. And by way of justification he comes up with an elaborate argument: he claims that since Heracles was obliged to perform this labor in the first place, he does not need to be paid for it. In effect, Augeas would not have paid even if Heracles had owned up to the origin of the chore as a labor imposed upon him. The argument is so specious that Augeas is obliged to lie to the tribunal that is now summoned in order to settle the dispute: he perjures himself, swearing that he promised Heracles no reward whatsoever. But he is out of luck: his own son, who had been witness to the deal, testifies against his father and comes to the defense of Heracles. A poor loser, Augeas does not wait for the sentence before ordering both his son and Heracles off his lands. For which he will in due course reap the whirlwind. Heracles never forgets, and the next time he encounters Augeas he kills him. For the present, Heracles can return victorious to his cousin, who must now renounce any further trials, since they have all proved useless, at least in terms of fulfilling their sinister purpose… .
The adventures that follow the twelve labors are innumerable. The accounts that have come down to us are so varied, and so contradictory, that it would be absurd to try to recount them as if they formed a linear story and a coherent biography of Heracles. It seems preferable to skip directly to what the majority of mythographers do agree upon: the third and last marriage of Heracles (to Dejanira), his last moments, and his apotheosis.
Death and resurrection:
the “apotheosis” of Heracles
As far as the end of Heracles’s life is concerned, the earliest and most detailed source is furnished by the tragedy of Sophocles titled Trachiniae, or The Women of Trachis, named after the city that brings together, with tragic consequences, Dejanira, the last wife of Heracles, and Iole, his last mistress. Although very involved, the succession of events that leads to the appalling death of Heracles is more or less coherent—and the accounts of it given by later mythographers such as Diodorus, Apollodorus, or Hyginus remain largely consistent. If we keep to the central framework, it can be divided into six principal acts.
First act: under circumstances that we will leave to one side, Heracles meets Dejanira, in the village of Calydon. He falls in love and naturally wishes to marry her. But she has a suitor, a certain Achelous. The latter is both a god and a river, rather as Atlas is both mountain and Titan. Achelous possesses, moreover, a strange characteristic, no doubt deriving from his fluidity: he is able to metamorphose into different beings, each as difficult to combat as the other. Sometimes he retains his primary form, that of a river, but sometimes he transforms himself into a bull or a dragon. Heracles must combat all of these if he is to walk off with Dejanira. It is when Achelous assumes the form of a bull that Heracles snatches victory, by tearing off one of his horns. Achelous must recover it at all costs, so he declares himself beaten and asks Heracles please to return his horn. One of the numerous variants of the myth relates that, in exchange, Achelous gives Heracles the famous horn of the she-goat Amalthea, who nursed Zeus when he was an infant (concealed in the cave made by his grandmother, Gaia, to prevent his father, Cronus, from swallowing him). The horn of Amalthea is referred to as the “horn of plenty” because it has the magical property of providing its owner with everything he desires in the way of nourishment… . It is also worth recalling, in passing, that the impenetrable skin of this goat also served to make the aegis (from aix, “goat”), the famous shield of Athena… .
But let us return to our story. After his victory over Achelous, Heracles remains for a while in Calydon with his new conquest, Dejanira, whom he plans to marry. Unfortunately, in the course of a dinner given by Oeneus, the king of this city, Heracles inadvertently kills—“without meaning to,” as children say—one of the servants, who just happens to be related to the king. Decidedly, Heracles is too strong to remain in the world of mortals, where he is beginning to do more harm than good. We can already intuit, from this episode, that it is perhaps time for him to return to another world, a divine world, more adapted to his stature. Since the death was an accident, Heracles is pardoned by Oeneus. However, he is not exactly pleased with himself: he feels culpable and, with his stern sense of justice, decides to apply the harsh penalty of exile to himself. He therefore leaves Calydon, with Dejanira, and makes his way to a different city, Trachis, where he now plans to reside.
On the way—third act—he comes to a river, the Evenus, which he must cross. Here there is a ferryman, a centaur by the name of Nessus—half man, half horse—who makes travelers pay to cross the river on his makeshift craft. Heracles crosses the river on his own and entrusts Dejanira to the ferryman. The latter can think of nothing better than to try and rape her during the crossing. Dejanira starts to scream; Heracles hears her cries and takes out his bow and arrows. With a single arrow—their tips are poisoned, as you will recall, Heracles having dipped them in the venomous blood of the Lernaean hydra—he pierces the heart of Nessus. In his dying moments, Nessus, in the hope of avenging himself after his death, tells Dejanira a cock-and-bull story, managing to persuade her that by collecting some of his blood she can make a love potion that will bring back Heracles should he ever cease to love her. Dejanira believes Nessus: no doubt she thinks that nobody in the throes of death has any interest in telling a lie. In which respect she will be proved quite wrong… .
Fourth act: Heracles and Dejanira finally reach Trachis, where the hero installs his wife in the palace of Ceyx, king of this city, who is both a friend and a relation (a nephew of Heracles’s mortal father Amphitryon). Unable to stay still, Heracles immediately goes off in pursuit of new adventures, and in the course of various combats or wars he kills more evildoers and plunders a goodly number of cities. I will pass over the details. Let us merely add that in the course of one of these customary raids—at this epoch, all wars (not least the Trojan War) usually ended with the ritual sacking of the defeated city—he abducts the ravishing Iole, whom it seems he has decided to take as his mistress. He has her conducted to Trachis, along with other captives, where she will lodge in the palace of Ceyx—together with Dejanira. Heracles plans to return a little later. On his way home he intends to spend time on the heights of the Cenean promontory, to make sacrifices to Zeus. As he leaves, he conveys a message to Dejanira—through the messenger who is conducting Iole and the other captives—to send him a new cloak so that he can make the ritual sacrifices with clean garments, worthy of the act of purification he intends to accomplish.
As soon as she sees Iole, Dejanira recognizes the threat: this young woman is decidedly too beautiful. Sophocles, in the Trachiniae, describes the moment so that we see how, in a flash, Dejanira grasps that her husband is slipping away from her. Then she remembers Nessus and his love potion. She finds it and smears it carefully on the shirt the messenger must take to Heracles. Her hope is to bring him back, to make him fall in love with her again, as Nessus promised would happen. But it is a trap, of course: the potion is indeed magical, but only in the sense of killing—in the most atrocious manner—whoever should wear it. Heracles puts on the shirt. As soon as it is warmed by contact with his body it starts to burn him. He tries, of course, to remove it, but it sticks horribly to his skin. When it is taken off, strips of charred flesh come off with the fabric. The pain is dreadful, and there is no way of saving whoever is caught in its web. An oracle had, moreover, warned Heracles that he would only die at the hands of someone who is already dead, and he now understands that this someone is none other than Nessus, the centaur whom he killed with his poisoned arrow.
So Heracles now begs one of his sons to make a massive funeral pyre for him so that he may die through the purificatory fire. His horrified son refuses, but a servant accepts the command, in exchange for which Heracles gives him his bow and arrows. He mounts the pyre. The servant lights the brazier … and thus does Heracles end his career on earth. He must die, like all mortals, but his story does not end here. According to Apollodorus, who expresses the view most widely held by the various mythographers, a cloud descends from the sky, drapes itself delicately around the burning body of Heracles, and carries him up slowly to the heavens. Here, on Olympus, he will be transformed into a god. And here, too, Hera will forgive him, finally, and their reconciliation will take place. His apotheosis—apo-théos: transformation into a god—is the reward for his ceaseless struggle, in effect divinely inspired, against the forces of chaos.
II. Theseus—or how to continue the work of Heracles
in the struggle against the surviving forces of chaos
Theseus is a cousin, an admirer of, and a successor to Heracles. He, too, is a fabulous slayer of monsters. Moreover, his early exploits are explicitly presented by the majority of mythographers as a direct continuation of the labors of Heracles, when the latter is briefly indisposed due to his condemnation to slavery by the queen Omphale… . We might say that, in a manner comparable to Heracles in the Peloponnese and the region of Argos, known as Argolis, Theseus is the greatest hero of all time in what is referred to as Attica, in other words the region around Athens. Theseus, like Heracles, is exclusively a figure of legend: he never existed. However, as with Heracles, we know of his adventures through “biographies” that depict and relate his life as if he were an actual historical personage* who lived a generation before the Trojan War—which is supposedly proven by the fact that two of his sons were said to have taken part in that conflict. Theseus would therefore be a contemporary of Heracles, albeit younger, and according to several legends they even had occasion to meet each other. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately: the contradictions are part of the charm and interest of these myths—these legendary biographies diverge freely, and the divergences begin with the birth of Theseus.
According to some accounts, notably that of Plutarch—who, albeit late, is the single most important source on our hero—Theseus is the son of Aethra, a princess and daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. His father is Aegeus, king of Athens and ruler of the whole of Attica. Theseus is therefore of high birth. According to this version, it is said that Aegeus failed to have children with any of his various wives, so he decided to make the voyage to Delphi to consult the Pythian priestess, famous oracle of Apollo. Her words, sibylline as ever (in other words, more or less incomprehensible), were that he should not open his wineskin before returning home to Athens. Here, according to Plutarch, are her exact words:
“Loose not the wine-skin’s foot, great prince,
Until to Athens thou art come again.”
I will take advantage of this moment to say a few words about “sibylline words” and the original meaning of the term “sibylline.” Sibyl was quite simply one of the Pythian priestesses, charged with delivering the oracles of Apollo. As she was held in great esteem, it was decided after her death to transform her name into a common noun, and to refer to any oracular priestess who succeeded her at Delphi or elsewhere as “a sibyl.” Now these oracles all shared one characteristic: they always spoke equivocally, in an ambiguous manner, whose meaning was never immediately apparent but on the contrary difficult for mortals to interpret. Whence the use of “sibylline” to designate all utterance that is unclear or ambiguous.
Aegeus, understanding little of what is uttered by the Pythian priestess, decides on his way home to visit his friend Pittheus, king of Troezen, to ask his counsel. This latter has no trouble in interpreting the words of the oracle, namely that he must get Aegeus drunk and put his daughter Aethra in his bed if Aegeus is to produce a child. This behavior, especially on the part of a father, must seem bizarre: we have difficulty imagining a parent deliberately getting his guest drunk so that he will sleep with the daughter of the house. We would sooner take steps to prevent such a scenario! But at the epoch in question, such matters were regarded rather differently: in the eyes of Pittheus, his compatriot the king of Athens was an excellent catch for his daughter. A child by Aegeus would be an honor for the family and would offer the chance, if not the certainty, of having a grandchild out of the ordinary. It is by such means, at any rate, that Theseus first sees the light of day. According to other sources (Bacchylides and, so it seems, Apollodorus), while Theseus was certainly the child of Aethra—the mother is never in doubt in such cases—the real father was not Aegeus but Poseidon himself, who slipped into Aethra’s bed the same night as Aegeus did! An even higher birth for Theseus since the father is in this case a deity.
Whichever the case, it matters little. What is certain is that Theseus is from the start cut out to be a hero, if we are to judge by his prestigious antecedents—as did the aristocratic society of the time. However, for the whole of his childhood, he remains ignorant as to his father. In effect, his mother refuses to reveal to him his true identity. In any case, when a god sleeps with a mortal, her husband (or consort) is generally persuaded not to take offense. He must raise or arrange for the child to be raised as if it were his own. Aegeus, the morning after this night during which he gets drunk and sleeps with Aethra, tells himself that if ever he should have a son, if would be good that, when he is old enough, he should be able to know his father. To this end, he hides a sword and a pair of sandals beneath a great rock—almost impossible to move—and before returning to Athens, he tells the young princess that if by chance she has a son by him, she should wait until he is old enough to reveal to him this hiding place and the true identity of his father. Then, and only then, will he be strong enough to remove the rock and find the gifts left for him, at which point he should be sent to Athens with these tokens to present himself to his father. In the meantime Aethra and Pittheus raise little Theseus with the greatest of care.
You will perhaps be wondering why Aegeus does not prefer to bring Aethra and his future son with him. Is he a bad father, who cares nothing for the child he engenders on his travels? Not in the least. The truth is quite other, and we must not judge by appearances. In effect, Aegeus desires only one thing in this life, which, moreover, is why he made the journey to Delphi to consult the oracle: namely, to have a son. But he wants this son to reach man’s estate before making himself known and being acknowledged in turn; otherwise he will risk being killed by his cousins, the sons of Pallas, the brother of Aegeus. The reason for this is immediately clear: everyone in Athens knows that Aegeus is childless. In view of this, his nephews (the sons of Pallas) confidently tell themselves that it is they who will inherit the throne of Athens. And you may be sure that, if they happen to learn that Aegeus has a son, they will undoubtedly try to get rid of him to prevent his depriving them of what they now regard as rightfully theirs, namely the succession to the throne. And as there are no less than fifty of them and they are quite unscrupulous, the child will have no chance of surviving. This is why Aegeus instructs Aethra to keep silent, and to refrain from revealing to Theseus his origins until he is grown-up and strong enough to remove the rock, and likewise to wield the sword that is hidden beneath it.
Theseus grows rapidly … and sturdily. By the time he is sixteen he is as strong as an adult, and stronger than all the men of the region. He has the strength of Heracles, in effect, and is described as having modeled himself on Heracles from childhood, to whom, moreover, he is distantly related. Aethra decides it is time to reveal to him the double secret that she has been keeping for so long: firstly, that his father (or at any rate the father who counts most for him on this earth, his mortal father) is Aegeus, king of Athens; secondly, that he has left something for his son, hidden beneath a heavy rock—to which she now leads Theseus, to see if he is yet strong enough to displace it. As you may imagine, it takes Theseus mere seconds to get the better of this rock, which he removes as if it weighs nothing. He seizes the sword, puts on the sandals, and tells his mother that he is setting off immediately to find his father in Athens. Here again, you may well ask what is the point of these wretched sandals: we can all understand why a father would leave a fine weapon for his son, both to arm himself and as symbol of his rite of passage into adulthood. But why leave an object as banal and without significance as a pair of sandals, when clearly his mother and grandfather will already have furnished him with whatever he needs in the way of footwear? But the sandals have a precise significance: they indicate that Theseus must make the voyage from his birthplace Troezen to Athens on foot and not by boat. And why should this be so important an element in the myth?
Because, as you will remember, the life of Theseus is more than ever menaced by the wicked sons of Pallas, who would inevitably usurp him. Aethra and Pittheus are, moreover, extremely anxious on his behalf. They exhort him at all costs to avoid traveling to Athens by foot: it is far too dangerous. Not only is it menaced by the sons of Pallas, but the region is also infested with brigands, and even by actual monsters, since Heracles is at this point reduced to slavery and cannot acquit himself properly in his role of monster-slayer. The monsters that haunt the road to Athens are more violent and merciless than mere bandits—demoniacal creatures that it would be unwise for an inexperienced young man to try to confront. Such at least is the voice of wisdom, or of prudence. On the other hand, there are the sandals, indisputably, which his father must have left for him for good reason. If Aegeus has hidden the sandals, it is so that Theseus will use them; it is therefore clear that he must go to Athens on foot, and if monsters block his way they will meet their match, since Theseus is by now almost as strong as Heracles and endowed with a formidable sword.
Considered more symbolically, what is involved is an initiatory voyage, in the course of which Theseus will discover his true vocation: that of a hero, exceptional not merely by his strength and courage but also by his capacity to rid the world, even the cosmos, of the intolerable disorder created by monstrous forces. There are two possible outcomes: either Theseus will fail, or he will succeed. If he fails, it will be because he was not cut out after all to be a hero. If he succeeds, he will become, like his cousin Heracles, one of the great successors to the work undertaken by Zeus when he overwhelmed the Titans and triumphed over Typhon: a man, certainly, but a man-god by virtue of his contribution—after the manner of a god—to the harmonizing of the universe and the victory of the cosmos against the forces of chaos.
As to the forces of chaos, Theseus will certainly encounter more than his fair share of these. During the course of his journey to Athens, he will cross the path of six living abominations—beings that, moreover, terrorize the entire isthmus of Corinth. As in the labors of Heracles, nearly all of these monsters have a redoubtable or bizarre ancestry, and all of them are possessed of characteristics beyond our common understanding. They are all dangerous and fearful to a degree.
We begin with Periphetes, who according to Apollodorus (whom I generally follow here)* is the first to be encountered by young Theseus, on the outskirts of Epidaurus. Periphetes is truly an unpleasant piece of work. Said to be the son of Hephaestus, the lame god and the only Olympian without beauty, he has short crooked legs like his father. As these are also enfeebled, Periphetes always pretends to be leaning on a staff—in effect an iron club or bludgeon—so that travelers will feel pity and approach him to offer help. As does Theseus, politely. In return for which, by way of thanks, the hideous Periphetes raises his massive bludgeon to kill Theseus. But the latter is quicker and defter, and runs him through with his sword. Then Theseus takes possession of the bludgeon, from which it is said that he will never again be parted… .
Second act: Theseus continues on his way and encounters the contemptible bandit Sinis, also known as Pityokamptes—in Greek, “bender of pines,” for reasons that will become clear. Sinis is a giant of unimaginable strength, in the proper sense inhuman—out of all human proportion—which is in itself a sign of monstrosity. According to Apollodorus, he is the son of a certain Polypemon, but it was sometimes claimed—no doubt so as to explain his monstrosity and strength—that he is of divine ancestry, as a son of Poseidon. In order to understand the atrocious little game played by Sinis, we must refer back to archaic iconography, to the painted images, notably on vases, that depict the scene and which are often more explicit than written texts. Sinis hijacks travelers who have the misfortune to pass within range. He asks them to help him bend two neighboring pine trees that grow close together. At the point where the tops of the trees are held farthest back, Sinis attaches his victim’s legs and arms to each of the two treetops and then lets go so that the traveler is literally torn apart when the trees are released and revert violently to their upright positions. At which Sinis sniggers, this being his favorite pastime. Until the day that Theseus crosses his path. Our hero pretends to enter into the game, but instead of letting himself be attached, he ties the feet of the monster to the two trees, so that when they straighten it is Sinis who is torn in half, suffering the same fate that he gleefully inflicted on so many others.
Third act, and even worse: the wild boar of Crommyon, or rather the wild sow, for it surely concerns a female boar. This sow is quite out of the ordinary and has nothing in common with others of her breed, past or present. She is the daughter of Typhon and Echidna, herself the daughter of Tartarus and mother of (among others) Cerberus, the hound of hell. Echidna is a monster with the face of a woman, whose body ends not with legs but with a serpent’s tail … so, as you can see, the monstrosity of this boar runs in the family. And murder is likewise her pastime: she terrorizes the region, killing whoever comes within range … until Theseus rids the earth of her with his sword strokes.
Theseus encounters the fourth monster outside the city of Megara. This one wears a human face: he is named Sciron, and once again, divine ancestry is sometimes claimed for him, some sources even suggesting that he is (another) son of Poseidon. Others insist that he is the son of Pelops, himself the offspring of the celebrated Tantalus, who was condemned to an eternity of hunger in the underworld. Whatever the case, this is clearly an inhuman figure who has staked out his territory along the high coast road that follows the sea, near a promontory aptly called the “cliffs of Sciron.” Here he patiently waits for travelers and compels them to wash his feet. He always carries his basin in hand, but when the unfortunate travelers bow down to carry out the chore inflicted upon them, Sciron hurls them into the deep, where they become the prey of a huge sea turtle, itself monstrous, and are devoured alive… . Again, Theseus has the measure of all this. On certain vase images, he is depicted as seizing the basin of Sciron, banging him on the head with it, and dispatching him to join his turtle in the waters below.
Theseus resumes his perilous path. As is to be expected, he comes upon another veritable pestilence. This time the encounter occurs outside Eleusis, the city of Demeter and her mysteries. A strange figure blocks Theseus’s way—a certain Cercyon, who once again is not quite human, said to be yet another son of Poseidon or perhaps of Hephaestus, like the dreadful Periphetes. Whatever the case, he is endowed with superhuman strength and his pastime is to do evil for evil’s sake. He stops travelers and compels them to wrestle with him. And because of his divine origins and his strength, he wins every time, after which he kills his adversary. When he stops Theseus he is certain of the outcome, pitted against a youth of sixteen years. He will make short work of him. Except that Theseus is an uncommon youth, and quick as a panther. He seizes Cercyon by his leg and arm, lifts him up on high, and dashes him to the ground with all his strength. The monster has met his match: he falls with a force to match his size … and dies instantly.
As in all good stories, the worst is kept for the end. Namely, the encounter with a certain Procrustes (whose other names are Damastes or Polypemon)—a word that in this context signifies “one who hammers.” Here again, some accounts endow him with a nonhuman origin: Hyginus, notably, makes Procrustes a son of Poseidon—to whom, as we have seen, a host of unsavory offspring are attributed. Procrustes possesses two guest beds, one short and the other long, in his house, situated along this same road leading from Troezen to Athens. Politely, and with a casual air, Procrustes offers his hospitality to passersby who come within range. But he always takes care to offer the long bed to those who are short, and the short bed to those who are tall, so that the first are all at sea, whereas the second stick out at both ends. As soon as they are asleep, their dreadful host attaches them firmly … and proceeds to top and tail those who are too long, while hammering the limbs of those who are too short until the victims are stretched to match the dimensions of the bed. Here again, Theseus is not fooled. He has anticipated the maneuvers of his host, whom he has distrusted from the outset. Grabbing hold of him, Theseus subjects him to the torture ordinarily reserved for his victims… .
When he finally arrives in Athens, safe and sound, Theseus is already preceded by a considerable reputation as a slayer of monsters. Everyone acclaims him, showing profound gratitude for his having cleared the route of these demoniacal beings dedicated to gratuitous evildoing, and whom nobody has hitherto been able to confront. Only Heracles can be compared to this new hero. Theseus now goes to find his father, Aegeus, king of Athens. But two obstacles still stand in his path. There are firstly the sons of Pallas, his first cousins and sons of his uncle, who want to kill him so as to prevent him from inheriting the throne in their place. Secondly, and possibly even more to be feared, there is the enchantress Medea, who has become the wife of Aegeus. Medea, despite her personal charms—which include her absolute beauty—is a terrifying being. For one thing she is the niece of another necromancer, Circe, who transformed the companions of Odysseus into pigs. But she is also the daughter of Aietes, king of Colchis, possessor of the Golden Fleece, which has been claimed by Jason, of whom we shall hear more later. In this other myth, Medea has killed her own brother without hesitation and cut him into pieces, to help her lover Jason to flee from Colchis with the fleece, which gives some idea of who Medea is and what she is capable of. Moreover, on the day that Jason ends by abandoning her, after she has borne him two children, she will stab them to death purely to avenge her rage against him.
She knows, of course, that Theseus is the son of Aegeus, and she is aware that with all his heroic attributes he is bound to make trouble for her. So she starts putting ideas into Aegeus’s head. She explains to him that this Theseus is dangerous, that they must rid themselves of him. We should remember that, at this point, Aegeus has no idea yet that Theseus is his son: he knows of him only through his reputation as a slayer of bandits and monsters. Like most husbands, he allows himself to be persuaded by his wife and, according to Apollodorus, tries initially to get rid of the hero by sending him off to confront a dreadful bull, the man-killing bull of Marathon, who is sowing terror throughout that city. Of course, Theseus returns victorious after having annihilated the beast. On the advice of Medea, Aegeus now tries to poison Theseus, still unaware that the latter is his son. The enchantress has prepared poisoned wine, one of her specialties. Aegeus gives a feast in his palace, to which he invites Theseus. He hands him a cup of poison, but just when Theseus takes it and raises it to his lips, Aegeus notices that Theseus is wearing the royal sword at his side, the same that Aegeus himself had placed under the rock as a token of recognition. He looks down at the young man’s feet and also recognizes the sandals. With the back of his hand he sweeps away the poisoned cup, and the vile liquid spills onto the ground. He embraces his son, with tears in his eyes. Theseus is saved, and Aegeus immediately has the dreadful Medea chased out of his kingdom. As for the sons of Pallas, let us merely add that, at the appointed time, after his father’s death, Theseus will have no trouble in exterminating them, one by one, to the very last of the fifty, so that the way is finally clear for him to become the new king of Athens.
But even here we are not quite done. There is one more trial, the most terrible of all, that awaits Theseus on the path of his accession to the throne. He must encounter a monster compared to which all that has gone before is as child’s play: namely the Minotaur, half man, half bull, which King Minos has confined in the Labyrinth specially constructed for this purpose by the most famous architect of the epoch, Daedalus. And in this case the outcome is far from guaranteed in advance: no one has ever triumphed over the monster who lurks in the celebrated Labyrinth, just as no one who has entered this evil garden has ever found his way out.
To understand what ensues, we must return to the origins and the unusual story of this creature.
Theseus confronts the Minotaur in
the Labyrinth constructed by Daedalus
The myth of the bull goes far back in time. Let us begin with the figure of Minos. This king of Crete is hardly a sympathetic character. He is said to be one of the numerous sons of Zeus, engendered when Zeus transformed himself—into a bull, no less—so as to abduct Europa, a beautiful young girl with whom he had fallen in love. I will note in passing, to indicate the interweaving of these stories, that Europa is the sister of Cadmus, who, as we have seen, helped Zeus to vanquish Typhon and to whom the ruler of the gods had given the hand of Harmonia in marriage, one of the daughters of Aphrodite and Ares.
But to return to our story. In order to seduce Europa without being seen by his wife, Hera, Zeus has assumed the appearance of a magnificent bull, a creature of immaculate whiteness and endowed with horns like a crescent moon. Even when disguised as an animal, Zeus remains magnificent. Europa meanwhile is playing on the beach with a group of other young girls. She is the only one, it is said, who does not run away from this apparition. The bull approaches her. She is frightened, of course, but the creature seems so gentle, so lacking in ferocity—and we may well imagine Zeus doing everything in his power to make himself agreeable—that she begins to stroke it. He makes cow eyes at her. He kneels before her, as cute as can be. She cannot resist. She climbs on his back … and in an instant he gets up and carries her off at top speed toward the waves, and across to Crete, where he assumes human form and in short order gives the lovely creature three children: Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthus.
The one who interests us here is Minos. According to Apollodorus—whom I follow once more for the essentials of the story—Minos is responsible for writing the laws for Crete, the land of his birth and over which he wishes to become king. He marries a young woman, Pasiphae, also of high birth since she is said to be one of the daughters of Helios, god of the sun. He has several children by her, and two of their daughters will also become celebrated, Ariadne and Phaedra—of whom we shall have occasion to speak later on. On the death of the king of Crete, who is without issue, Minos decides to take his vacant place and claims to all who will listen to him that he has the support of the gods. The proof? The people have only to ask, and Minos will request Poseidon to send down an offering, as a sign of his legitimacy: a magnificent bull floating upon the waves of the sea. In effect, to obtain the favors of the god of the sea, Minos has already sacrificed several animals, and above all has promised that if ever Poseidon accedes to Minos’s request—namely, on the day in question, to send an enormous bull out of the sea—Minos will immediately sacrifice the animal to him. As we know, the gods love nothing more than sacrifices. They adore the worship of mortals, the cults and the honors, but also the delicious odors wafting upward from the succulent legs of a bull roasting over the charcoals… . So Poseidon does as Minos requests, and before the astounded eyes of the people of Crete, gathered for the occasion, a magnificent bull slowly rises out of the waves!
No sooner is the miracle accomplished than Minos is elected king. The people can refuse nothing to one who is manifestly in such favor with the gods. However, as I have already suggested, Minos is not exactly what we would call a nice guy. Among other faults, he does not keep his word. And he now finds Poseidon’s bull so beautiful and so powerfully built that he makes up his mind to keep it as a breeder for his own herds instead of sacrificing it to the god as promised—a grave error of judgment, and one that clearly verges on hubris. No one makes a mockery of Poseidon: the god is incensed to a rare degree and decides to punish this brazen mortal.
Here is how Apollodorus describes what happens next:
Angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon turned the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae [wife of Minos] should conceive a passion for it. Becoming infatuated with the bull, she enlisted the help of Daedalus, an architect who had been exiled from Athens for murder. The latter constructed a wooden cow, mounted it on wheels, hollowed it out on the inside, sewed around it the hide from a cow which he had earlier skinned, and placing in the meadow where the bull habitually grazed, he made Pasiphae climb inside. The bull came up to it and had intercourse with it, as if it were a genuine cow. As a result, Pasiphae gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of his body was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, enclosed him and guarded him in the Labyrinth. This Labyrinth, which Daedalus constructed, was a chamber from whose tangled windings none could ever find their way out.
Let us dwell for a moment on this passage.
First of all, the vengeance of Poseidon. Let us agree that it is fairly twisted. He decides, quite simply, to make a cuckold of Minos, and not just by any means but by the very bull that Minos should have sacrificed to Poseidon! As always, the punishment fits the crime: Minos has cheated the god with a bull; he will in turn be cheated by a bull. Poseidon casts a spell on Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, so that she falls in love with the bull and gives birth to the Minotaur—literally, “the bull of Minos,” who despite the name is anything but the father… .
Let us now turn to the role of this strange and inspired individual, Daedalus. Apollodorus tells us in passing that Daedalus was exiled from Athens for a crime. What crime? The answer reveals him to be another fairly unsympathetic type, albeit of matchless intelligence. Daedalus is not merely an architect but what we could call today an “inventor.” He is part crackpot, part Leonardo da Vinci. You can present him with any problem and he will find the solution: ask him to invent any machine, and he will come up with an instant prototype. Nothing is too complex for him, and he is diabolically ingenious. However, he has many faults. In particular, he is jealous. He cannot bear the thought of anyone else being more intelligent. He has his workshop in Athens, and one day he takes on an apprentice, his young nephew Talus—according to Diodorus Siculus, who describes the episode in detail (Apollodorus merely alludes to it). As it happens, this Talus is very gifted. Incredibly talented, in fact, and even risks outmastering his master when he invents, quite by himself and unaided, the potter’s wheel—that wonderfully useful mechanism on which vases, bowls, plates, jars, and so forth are fashioned from clay. And likewise, for good measure, he invents the metal saw… . Daedalus is mortally envious, which in turn makes him nasty, to the point that, in a sudden access of hatred, he kills his nephew (according to Apollodorus, by hurling him from the top of the Acropolis, one of the highest points in Athens). Daedalus is convoked by a famous council named the Areopagus, because in earlier times it had tried Ares, god of war, for murder. This prestigious assembly finds Daedalus guilty and condemns him to exile.
To us, today, this sentence may seem lightweight: merely to be exiled from one’s city for such an abominable crime seems like a meager punishment. But at the time it was considered to be worse even than the death penalty—and this is consistent with the Greek worldview that emerges from everything I have been saying about these myths since the outset. If the good life—witness the story of Odysseus—consists in living in accord with one’s “natural place” in the scheme of things instituted by Zeus, then to be banished from this place is indeed to be condemned in perpetuity to an existence of misery. The proof once again is Odysseus—who rejects Calypso’s offer of a gilded exile when, in order to keep him by her side, she proposes immortal youth… .
Daedalus is therefore banished from Athens and knows for certain that henceforth he is one of the damned, doomed forever to the prison of nostalgia. He leaves for Crete, where, among his kind, he goes back to work, in the service of Minos, who has welcomed him into his house. And, as we have seen, he does not hesitate to undermine his new master by constructing the wooden cow in which Pasiphae hides in order to couple with Poseidon’s bull. And, as we shall see in a moment, Daedalus will trick Minos again by helping Theseus to find a way out of the Labyrinth that he himself conceived and executed to contain the Minotaur. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. For the moment, we know simply that Minos has been cruelly cuckolded by Poseidon by proxy. And he has plenty of other worries. One of his sons, Androgeus, has gone to Athens to take part in a great festival named the Panathenaea: a competition rather like the Olympic Games, in which young people from different regions were invited to pit themselves against one another in various events: javelin, discus throwing, racing, horse racing, wrestling, etc. In the course of which, for one reason or another—variously explained—Androgeus is killed. According to Diodorus, Aegeus has him killed because he has befriended the sons of Pallas and therefore represents a menace. Apollodorus tells us that Aegeus sends Androgeus to fight the bull of Marathon, and he is killed in the attempt. What is clear is that the son of Minos meets his death while staying in Athens, and the father holds Aegeus responsible, rightly or wrongly. Minos consequently declares war on Athens, and there follows, according to Diodorus (Apollodorus is silent on this point), a period of drought that threatens the very existence of Athens. Aegeus solicits Apollo for guidance, and the god replies that, to break the deadlock, Athens must submit to the conditions imposed by Minos.
As I have said already, Minos is not an especially sympathetic figure. In return for calling off the siege of Athens, he demands to be sent a yearly tribute of seven young men and seven young women, to be introduced into the Labyrinth, where they are devoured by the Minotaur. These unfortunates do everything in their power to escape the clutches of the monster, but it is impossible to find any way out of his lair, and one by one they are massacred. In some sources, Theseus is drawn by lot to be one of the next consignment of victims. But according to the majority of versions, with his usual courage he naturally offers himself as a volunteer. Whatever the case, Theseus finds himself embarked on a boat bringing fourteen youths to Crete, where a terrifying fate awaits them. The sources are unanimous as to what ensues. Here is one of the oldest accounts, that of Pherecydes (mid-sixth century BC, and the main source for most subsequent accounts), which serves as the matrix for the majority of mythographers:
And when he came to Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, being amorously disposed towards him, gave Theseus a clue [a ball of thread], which she had received from Daedalus, the architect, and told him to fasten one end to the bolt of the door, on entering, letting it trail behind him as he proceeded, until it was played out. And that when he discovered the sleeping Minotaur in the innermost part of the Labyrinth and killed him, to sacrifice to Poseidon the hairs of its head, then to make his way back again by rewinding the thread… . After killing the Minotaur, Theseus embarked with Ariadne and likewise the young men and women, who had yet to be handed over to the Minotaur. After which, he sailed out unobserved under cover of night. He put in at the island of Naxos, disembarked and slept on the beach. Athena appeared before him and commanded him to leave Ariadne and set sail for Athens. There and then he got up and complied. Then Aphrodite appeared before the inconsolable Ariadne, exhorting her to take courage: she would be the wife of Dionysus and become celebrated. Then the god himself appeared before her and gave her a crown of gold, which subsequently the gods changed into a constellation to please Dionysus.
Here again, a few words of commentary.
Firstly, once again, as with Pasiphae, Daedalus does not hesitate in betraying Minos, who is nevertheless his king and protector. As soon as Ariadne asks for the means of helping Theseus, with whom she has fallen in love at first sight, Daedalus has no scruple in providing her with a stratagem for bailing out her lover: by means of the ball of thread, Theseus can retrace his steps and thereby become the first mortal ever to find a way out of the cursed Labyrinth (whence the expression “Ariadne’s thread,” still used to designate the main theme of a complicated story). In exchange for this service rendered, Theseus promises Ariadne that if he manages to kill the Minotaur, he will take her away with him and marry her. Theseus succeeds, of course. He enters the Labyrinth and beats the Minotaur to death with his bare fists.
You will note, too, that, contrary to other mythographers, who suggest that Theseus “forgot” Ariadne on the island where they disembark, Pherecydes (followed by Apollodorus) tells us that nothing of the sort took place. Theseus is not an ungrateful hero by nature. He is even in love with Ariadne. But he simply obeys the command of Athena and defers to a god whom it would be pointless to try and resist: namely Dionysus. I prefer this version of the tale, for it tallies more closely with what we know of Theseus: a courageous and loyal figure, who obeys the gods and who it is hard to imagine conducting himself so churlishly toward a woman who has just saved his life. It is with a heavy heart, therefore, deprived of her in whom he already saw his future wife, that he returns to Athens.
This also explains the subsequent drama leading to the death of his father. In effect, as he was leaving Athens for Crete, to combat the Minotaur, Theseus took his place in a boat that displayed black sails. Before he leaves, Aegeus gives his son a set of white sails, with a plea: that if he comes back alive, having triumphed over the monster, on no account to forget to take down the black sails and hoist white sails in their place. By which means his old father will be reassured, from a distance, and at the earliest possible opportunity: the lookout, who continually watches for approaching ships, will inform him that the sails are white, that his son is saved. But Theseus, heavyhearted at the loss of Ariadne, quite forgets to change the sails. Aegeus, in despair, hurls himself from the high rock that overlooks the port, into what is forever after called the Aegean Sea… .
The death of Minos and the myth
of Icarus, son of Daedalus
A few final words about Daedalus and Minos before we return to the further adventures of Theseus. Firstly, concerning Daedalus: on learning of the death of the Minotaur and the flight of the young Athenians, and realizing, moreover, that his daughter Ariadne has also vanished, Minos is enraged and wants to avenge himself at whatever cost. He is left in no doubt: only Daedalus could have helped Ariadne and Theseus to discover a way out of the Labyrinth; only Daedalus is clever enough to have devised a means of escape for them. No longer able to hand his architect over to the Minotaur, he nonetheless incarcerates Daedalus and his son Icarus in the Labyrinth, swearing never to release them from this dreadful confinement. But he is not counting on the genius of Daedalus, which knows no obstacles. One might think that, having created this convoluted garden, Daedalus must be able to find his own way out of it. Not so. Without his blueprint, Daedalus has as little idea as anyone else of where to begin. He must come up with another of those solutions for which he is renowned. So of course our inventor devises a contraption. With wax and feathers, he constructs two magnificent pairs of wings, a pair for himself and a pair for his son. Father and son take to the skies, floating serenely free of their prison.
Before taking off, Daedalus lectures his son carefully: above all, he says, do not fly too close to the sun, or the wax will melt and your wings will come unstuck; and do not fly too close to the sea, or the humidity will unseal the feathers from the wax and you also risk falling out of the sky. Icarus says yes to his father, but once he is up in the sky he loses all sense of proportion. In other words, he gives in to hubris. Carried away (in every sense) by his new powers, he takes himself for a bird, perhaps even for a god. He forgets his father’s warnings. He cannot resist climbing the skies, as high as he can reach. But the sun is shining powerfully and the wax holding Icarus’s wings together begins to melt. Suddenly they fall off and drop into the sea—followed promptly by Icarus, who drowns beneath the gaze of his father, who can do nothing except grieve the death of his child. Since then—as with the Aegean—this sea is named after the fallen one: the Icarian Sea.
On learning of the escape of Daedalus, Minos is once again furious, all patience at an end. He will do everything in his power to find the man who has so repeatedly and so conscientiously betrayed him: who has been responsible for the infidelity of his wife, for the flight of his daughter, for the death of his monster. Daedalus, meanwhile, has escaped unharmed and taken refuge in Sicily, at Camicos. Minos pursues him wherever he goes, determined to do so as far as the confines of the world if necessary. In order to flush out the traitor, Minos has devised an invention of his own: wherever he goes he brings with him a small seashell, a convoluted spiral, and he publicly offers a large sum of money to whoever can pass a thread through the interior of what is in effect a miniature Labyrinth. Minos is convinced that Daedalus alone is clever enough to find the solution, and equally convinced that, vain as he is, the inventor will not be able to resist coming forward, to demonstrate how he can solve any enigma.
That is indeed what happens. In Sicily, Daedalus is lodging with a certain Cocalus. One day Minos visits this house, by chance, and shows the host his little puzzle. Cocalus is quite sure that he can come up with the solution. He asks Minos to come back the next day, and in the interval, he of course asks his friend Daedalus to solve it for him—which Daedalus does not fail to do. He catches a little ant, attaches a thread to one of its legs, then releases the ant into the shell, after piercing a hole in the crown. The ant soon leaves the shell via the hole, pulling the thread behind itself. When Cocalus brings him the solution, Minos is in no doubt: Daedalus must be living here. He instantly demands that the latter be handed over for punishment. Cocalus gives the appearance of complying and invites Minos to dine. But before dinner he proposes a nice bath for the guest … which has been filled with scalding hot water by his daughters. An atrocious death for a singularly unsympathetic figure. Legend has it that Minos subsequently became one of the judges of the dead, alongside his brother Rhadamanthus, in the kingdom of Hades… .
Later adventures: Hippolyta, Phaedra,
and the death of Theseus
After the death of his father, Theseus becomes the new king of Athens. As we have seen, he disposes of the sons of Pallas, and with no further obstacles to overcome or monsters to subdue, he exercises his power with unexampled justice. He even comes to be regarded as one of the principal founders of Athenian democracy, one of the first to occupy himself with the weakest and the poorest in society. But let us be clear: it is almost impossible to relate his final adventures coherently, given the profusion of anecdotes and the divergence of sources. If we follow the life of Theseus as narrated by Plutarch, our hero engages in another war, against the Amazons, in which he combats these celebrated warriors alongside Heracles. He then engages in a further war, against the centaurs, this time alongside his closest friend, Pirithous, after which (like Odysseus) he descends to the underworld to try and carry off Persephone—an attempt that apparently ends in bitter defeat. He then carries out another abduction, of the beautiful Helen, then aged only twelve, and goes on to experience further adventures still… .
But in the course of this extraordinary life there is one further episode that merits our particular attention: the marriage of Theseus to Phaedra and his quarrel with Hippolyta.
During the war against the Amazons, the victorious Theseus carries off their queen, or at least one of their leaders, whom he brings back to Athens. They have a son, Hippolytus, whom he loves devotedly. A little later, however, he marries Phaedra, sister of Ariadne and one of the daughters of Minos. It is a love match, but also a token of reconciliation with the family of his old adversary, long since removed from the scene. Theseus loves Phaedra, but the latter, although she reveres her husband and has strong feelings for him, nevertheless falls passionately in love with … Hippolytus, his son. Hippolytus refuses the advances of his stepmother, for two reasons. Firstly, he has no time for women. His only enthusiasms are hunting and war games. Whatever is feminine fills him with horror. Besides, he has deep regard for his father, and nothing in the world would persuade him to betray Theseus by sleeping with the latter’s wife. Phaedra takes it very badly that this young man should refuse her advances. Moreover, she begins to fear that he will denounce her to his father. Anticipating such a turn of events, she takes the offensive. One day, when she knows that Hippolytus is in the vicinity, she breaks down the door of his chamber, tears her clothes, then begins to scream and pretend that the young man has tried to violate her. Hippolytus is overwhelmed with horror. He tries to defend himself to his father, but as so often, Theseus defers to his womenfolk, and with a broken heart he banishes his son from the house. And in his anger he commits the fatal error of entreating Poseidon—the god who is also Theseus’s father—to cause Hippolytus to die. The young man is already on his way. He flees the parental home as fast as possible, on his chariot, drawn by his thoroughbred horses. At a point where the road runs along the sea, Poseidon causes a bull to rise out of the waves (for the second time in our story). Startled, the horses panic and leave the road, and the chariot is smashed into a thousand pieces. Hippolytus is killed. Phaedra cannot bear the pain—she ends by confessing the truth to Theseus and then hangs herself.
The tragedy has inspired a host of playwrights, and the story—one of the saddest in classic mythology—remains unforgettable. Theseus is henceforth only a shadow of himself. For various reasons, which I shall not relate here, he is no longer capable of ruling Athens and abdicates the throne in order to take refuge with some distant cousin, a certain Lycomedes. According to some accounts, Lycomedes murders Theseus, for obscure reasons, perhaps jealousy or for fear that the latter will ask him for some land. According to others, Theseus dies a natural death, from an accident while hiking in the mountains of the island. Whatever the case, his end is relatively modest and miserable. As so often in heroic narratives, the end is far from grandiose and seems unworthy of the hero: because he dies as a man, like other men, and because death is always pointless. Later on, however, the Athenians open the tomb of Theseus, repatriate his remains, and initiate a cult for him, such as is normally reserved for the gods themselves… .
III. Perseus—or the cosmos
relieved of the Gorgon Medusa
With Perseus, we are again dealing with one of those Greek heroes sustained by a sense of justice and the desire to purge from the natural world all entities likely to destroy the beautiful cosmic order instigated by Zeus. The earliest coherent account of the adventures of Perseus derives from Pherecydes, followed fairly closely, it seems, by Apollodorus—and it is upon this template that the other mythographers tended to embroider their variants. My account relies for the most part on this original version of the myth.
There were once two royal twin brothers, named Acrisius and Proetus, of whom it was said that they got on so badly that they quarreled already inside their mother’s womb! To avoid quarrelling as adults they resolved to share power. Proetus became king of a city named Tyrins, and Acrisius, who interests us most here, reigned over the beautiful city of Argos—not to be confounded with the three other mythological figures named Argus, who bear the same name: first there is Odysseus’s dog, Argos, in the Odyssey; then there is the giant with a hundred eyes who is slain by Hermes when Hera sends him to guard Io (the lovely nymph transformed into a cow by Zeus), and whose eyes are said to have been subsequently printed on the tail of Hera’s sacred bird, the peacock; finally there is Argos the naval architect, who constructs the boat on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed… .
But let us return to Acrisius, king of the city named Argos. He has a ravishing daughter, Danae—but no son, and at this remote epoch a king’s duty was to provide a son to take his place on the throne. Acrisius therefore travels to Delphi, as was customary, to consult the oracle and discover if, one day, he will have an heir. And, as was also the custom, the oracle replies obliquely, telling him merely that he will have a grandson and that when he grows up this grandson will kill him. Acrisius is filled with dismay, and even terrified: the oracle at Delphi is never mistaken, and what he has just heard from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, spells his death sentence. There is no preventing fate—despite which humans cannot stop themselves from trying every alternative. Although he loves his daughter, Acrisius makes up his mind to incarcerate her, together with a female companion, a maidservant, in a sort of bronze chamber that he orders to be constructed underground, in the cellars of the palace courtyard. In effect, this prison derives from the archaic burial tombs constructed at Mycenae, in the depths of the earth, from which doors of gilded metal were later recovered. Acrisius merely asks his architect to leave a small vent in the ceiling so that a little air can circulate, so that Danae does not die of asphyxia… . When the chamber is finished, he shuts his daughter in with her maidservant and feels a little less anguished.
But Acrisius has not anticipated the watchful concupiscence of Zeus, who, having spotted Danae from the heights of Mount Olympus, has decided—as is his habit—that he must have her at all costs. To achieve this, he transforms himself into a fine golden rain, which falls from the sky and finds its way delicately through the openwork grille at the top of her chamber. This golden shower descends onto Danae’s lap, and from this contact alone is born a son, Perseus—unless perhaps things happened differently, and Zeus assumed a human form once inside the chamber, the better to make love with Danae. Whichever the case, the end result is little Perseus. He grows very happily, inside their golden cage, until one day Acrisius’s attention is caught by the sound of a child’s babbling. Gripped by fear, he has the chamber opened and discovers to his horror the reality: despite all of his precautions he well and truly has a grandson, and the oracle has begun to fulfill itself, slowly but surely. What is to be done? Acrisius starts by killing the unfortunate maidservant, who is not remotely involved with what has occurred, but whom he imagines to be an accomplice in this fateful birth. He himself cuts her throat, on the private altar inside his palace dedicated to Zeus, hoping thereby to obtain the protection of the ruler of the gods… . Then he interrogates his daughter: How has she managed to produce this child? Who is the father? Danae tells it as it is: Zeus is the father, and he came down from the sky disguised as a golden rain, etc., etc. “Really! And do you take me for a complete fool?” thunders the king. He has a point. Put yourself in his place for a moment: he cannot be expected to believe a word of this story, and he thinks his daughter is telling him brazen nonsense. But he cannot subject her to the same fate as her servant. Nor can he touch Perseus: they are, after all, his daughter and grandson, and the Furies, who always avenge murder within the family, would be sure to come after him… .
So Acrisius calls upon a resourceful carpenter and has him construct a large chest, sturdy enough to be seaworthy—into which Acrisius places his daughter and grandson. The lid is secured, and they are set adrift! Mother and son are abandoned to their own devices, and to wherever the currents may take them. In ages to come, painters and poets will frequently and variously depict the scene. We are told that Danae is a resourceful and fearless mother: in appalling circumstances, she manages wonderfully to look after her small son. The chest eventually and inevitably reaches land: an island, as it happens, the isle of Seriphos, where the two castaways are taken in by a fisherman by the name of Dictys. He is a good man, a man of real generosity. He treats Danae with the respect due to a princess, and he raises little Perseus as if he were his own son. But Dictys has a brother, Polydectes, who has rather less refinement or respect. Polydectes is king of Seriphos, and he falls in love with Danae as soon as he sets eyes upon her. In fact, he would give everything to possess her. The only problem is that Danae is not interested. Besides, Perseus has grown up and is now a young man. He watches out for his mother and cannot easily be disposed of. But Polydectes has an idea, no doubt intending to distract the attention of Perseus or set a trap for him—we do not know for certain. At any rate, the idea is to get Perseus out of the way, and Polydectes announces with great publicity that he will hold a festival to which all the young men of the island are invited. He will then pretend that he is to marry a young woman, Hippodamia, who is passionate about horses. As is the custom, all the young men of the island must offer gifts. Each of them therefore brings a horse, the handsomest he can find, to please their king. But Perseus cannot afford a gift and turns up empty-handed. To compensate, or perhaps in a show of bravura, he says that he will endeavor to bring Polydectes whatever else he desires—if necessary even the head of Medusa, the dreadful Gorgon. Perhaps he says this to show off, but also because he already senses in himself the destiny of a hero. The various accounts are not too clear on this point.
Whichever the case, Polydectes obviously takes Perseus at his word, all too happy at this excellent opportunity to rid himself definitively of this troublemaker. No one, in effect, has ever confronted the Gorgon and returned alive. The way will now be clear for Polydectes to wed (or take by force) Danae.
I have already spoken of the three Gorgons and their monstrous, terrifying aspect. I will now describe them in more detail. They are sisters, and according to some sources, notably Apollodorus, they were once beautiful but had the effrontery to claim they were more beautiful even than Athena. This sort of hubris, as we know, is never forgiven. To avenge herself—or, more accurately, to put them in their place—Athena literally disfigures them. She gives them each bulging eyes, and a horrible swollen tongue like a pig or a sheep that sticks out permanently, together with tusks like a wild boar, so that now they all wear the same fixed and frightful snarl. Their arms and hands are turned into bronze, and golden wings sprout from their backs. But worst of all, their protruding eyes are of a piercing intensity that instantly transforms whatever meets their gaze (all living things, whether animals, plants, or men) … to stone. Here we encounter an exact analogue—in more extreme form—of the famous golden touch of Midas: in both cases, the magical or necromantic gift that can transform the organic into the inorganic, the living into mineral or metal, represents a direct threat to the entire cosmic order. Ultimately beings endowed with such powers could destroy the works of Zeus, if they are intent on doing so, or allowed to do so. It is therefore vital for the well-being of the cosmos, whenever the case arises, to put them in their place. Of the three Gorgons, one is mortal—Medusa—but the other two are immortal. It is high time to dispose of the disposable mortal, at least, and it is Perseus who takes it upon himself to do so.
The problem is that the unfortunate youth has spoken a little too rashly, and has not the slightest idea how to proceed. To begin with, he would need to know where Medusa lurks, of which he clearly has not the vaguest notion. It is said that the Gorgons, who are magical and mysterious creatures, do not even inhabit our earth but reside somewhere at the margins of the universe. But where, exactly? No one seems to know, least of all Perseus. Secondly, even if he finds them, how will Perseus kill Medusa without being himself transformed into stone for the rest of time? Bear in mind that Medusa flies like a bird, that her staring eyes swivel constantly in all directions at lightning speed, and that it will take merely a single glance for the whole story to be over for Perseus. Suffice to say that the challenge is not easy to meet, and it might have been better for him to offer Polydectes a horse like everyone else… . But he is a hero and, lest we forget, he is no less than a son of Zeus—like Heracles. And as proof that his work on this earth is indeed divine, Hermes and Athena—the most powerful Olympians, and the closest to Zeus—come to his assistance.
The first hurdle for Perseus is to pay a visit to those known as the Graeae, three sisters who also happen to be siblings of the Gorgons themselves. They share the same parents, equally shocking in appearance—two huge marine monsters, Phorcys and Ceto. The Graeae are responsible for guarding the route that leads to the Gorgons, and if they are perhaps unclear as to where the latter reside, at the least they are acquainted with some nymphs who do have this information. If Perseus manages to make the Graeae speak, he can then find these nymphs (the second obstacle on his journey). But the Graeae are not exactly cooperative. They, too, after their fashion, are monsters, and are far from trustworthy: they have a reputation for devouring young men when the fancy takes them. Moreover, all these divinities, whether the immortal Gorgons or their monstrous parents or their frightful sisters, belong to a pre-Olympian universe: they are creatures of chaos rather than cosmos, spawned from the archaic original forces that must always be feared, and that a hero must know how to subdue if he is to escape destruction.
As proof of this, the Graeae are endowed with two scarifying attributes. The first is that they are born old. They have neither youth, nor childhood, nor infancy. From birth these are old women with wrinkled skin, aged sorceresses from the start. Their second characteristic is that they have but one eye and one tooth to share among them! Imagine the scene: they are constantly passing one another the eye and the tooth, which revolve in a perpetual and infernal circle, so that, a little like Argos, the hundred-eyed monster, although they have only one organ of sight, it is permanently on watch because the three of them are never asleep at the same time. And their one tooth is permanently at the ready, to chomp and sever and tear whoever comes too close.
Jean-Pierre Vernant compares the passage of the eye to that of the ball in the game of pass-the-slipper. The image is excellent, but the story makes me think rather of the three-card shuffle. Three cards are placed facedown on the table. The dealer, a sort of conjuror, keeps switching the position of the cards—so rapidly as to make it increasingly difficult to follow the track of the ace or chosen card. You pick the wrong card and you lose your money. Something similar happens to Perseus with the Graeae. He must seize the eye or the tooth at the exact moment when it is being passed from one old crone to the other. It seems impossible to do—they are so alert and so quick—but Perseus is a hero, and as one might expect, he succeeds at this first exploit. Quick as lightning, he manages to snatch both the eye and the tooth so that the three old crones are terrified and begin to scream: they are immortal, yes, but deprived of the eye and tooth their existence will be hellish. As to what happens next, let us call a spade a spade. Perseus exerts blackmail. It is not very pretty, but he has no other option: if they tell him where to find the nymphs who know the whereabouts of the Gorgons, he will give them back their property; if not, they will pass the rest of eternity blind and starving. The offer is brutally simple. Although they grumble, the old women comply. They show him the road to the nymphs whom they are meant to be protecting. As good as his word, Perseus gives back the eye and the tooth … and hurries on his way.
Unlike the three sorceresses, the nymphs are as welcoming as they are beautiful. They have no problem with showing him the way to the Gorgons. What is more, they press priceless gifts upon him, each endowed with magical powers without which Perseus truly has no hope of succeeding in his mission. Firstly, they give him the same winged sandals as worn by Hermes, which allow him to fly through the air with the greatest speed, as fast or faster than a bird. Then they give him the famous helmet of Hades, a dog-skin cap that allows the wearer to become invisible—which will permit Perseus to escape pursuit by the two immortal Gorgons when they seek to avenge their mortal sister. Finally, they present him with a shoulder bag, of the kind used by hunters to carry dead game, into which Perseus must place and carefully seal the head of Medusa after he has severed it. For the eyes of the Gorgon—even after death—will continue for all eternity to petrify whatever they see: it is prudent, therefore, if not essential, to keep them well hidden. To these three gifts Hermes himself adds a fourth: a knife or small billhook like the one Cronus used to cut off the genitalia of his father Uranus—in other words an instrument that is as magical as the rest, so hard and so resistant that it severs whatever comes in contact with its blade.
Armed with these accessories, Perseus resumes his journey and eventually reaches the land of the Gorgons. Here again, the task is far from easy, and he will need the help of Athena. How in effect can he sever the head of the petrifying Medusa without meeting her gaze? To do his job, he must inevitably look at what he is doing—which will mean instant death. Happily, Athena has thought of everything and has brought her famous shield. Polished and gleaming, it will serve as a mirror. She positions herself behind Medusa, who is sleeping, while Perseus creeps up on her, as silent as a cat. He sees the reflection of Medusa’s head in the shield: even should she look at him, there is no danger since it is merely an image rather than the reality. Nothing could be simpler, now, than to cut off the fearful head and slip it into his game bag. But the two other Gorgons have woken up. They utter the most abominable screams, those cries that, as you will recall, give Athena the idea of the flute, which in turn she fatefully passes on to the unfortunate Marsyas after being mocked for her flute-playing cheeks by Hera and Aphrodite (all of which indicates, once again, how interwoven all these stories are …). Instantly, Perseus dons the helmet of Hades and becomes invisible; likewise, the sandals of Hermes, which enable him to make an instant escape. However they stare, wide-eyed, spreading their golden wings and looking this way and that, Perseus is nowhere to be seen, and he disappears, without mishap, as rapid as the wind… .
On his way back to Seriphos, where he will rejoin his mother, Danae, and deliver the head of Medusa to Polydectes, Theseus is high up in the air when he spies, down below, the woman who will become his wife: the beautiful Andromeda. She is in what might justly be called a difficult situation.
As Perseus passes overhead, Andromeda is lying chained to the side of a cliff, overhanging the sea, at whose base a sea monster watches her eagerly. It turns out that Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, wife of Cepheus (king of Ethiopia), has had the unhappy notion—as did Medusa, in respect to Athena—of defying some far from trifling divinities: namely the Nereids, daughters of Nereus, one of most ancient gods of the sea, prior even to Poseidon. Cassiopeia has openly insulted the Nereids, claiming to surpass them all in terms of beauty—which, as we know, is to flagrantly commit the sin of hubris… . The Nereids are enraged, as is their comrade Poseidon, by this foolish claim. To punish her insolence, he sends a flood as well as a sea monster, who proceeds to terrorize the entire region. To appease Poseidon there is only one solution: to offer up the king’s daughter, the lovely Andromeda, as prey, which her father, Cepheus, has just resolved to do, with death in his heart. This is why Andromeda is tied to the rock and awaiting her dreadful fate, which will occur just as soon as the sea monster makes up its mind to seize her. Perseus does not hesitate, but promises Cepheus that he will rescue her. He merely asks, in exchange, that Cepheus agree to give him the rescued girl as his wife. The oaths are sworn. With his billhook, his winged sandals, and his invisibility cap, Perseus has no trouble in slaying the beast, rescuing the girl, and returning her safely to solid ground. Everyone is delighted, with the exception of a certain Phineus, her uncle, who had been promised Andromeda in marriage beforehand. He plots against Perseus, but when the latter learns of this he removes the Gorgon’s head from his bag, and Phineus is instantly turned to stone.
Here is the end of the history of Perseus. I will let Apollodorus tell it, in his own entirely laconic manner (with a few comments in italics):
When he arrived back at Seriphos, Perseus found that his mother and Dictys had sought refuge at the altars, on account of the violence of Polydectes. So he entered the palace, where Polydectes had assembled his friends, and with averted eyes [so as not to be petrified himself] he showed them all the Gorgon’s head; and all who beheld it [including Polydectes, of course] were immediately turned to stone, each in the exact position he happened at that moment to have assumed [imagine the scene: some are drinking wine, others are looking astonished at the entrance of Perseus, Polydectes himself probably full of curiosity and apprehension, and so forth]. Then, after making Dictys king of Seriphos, Perseus restored the sandals, shoulder bag and cap to Hermes, and the Gorgon’s head he gave to Athena. Hermes returned the aforesaid objects to the nymphs and Athena fixed the Gorgon’s head to the centre of her shield [remember that she is also the goddess of war, and that with the head of Medusa she can literally “petrify” with fear all her enemies … ].
A final and inevitable coda: the oracle must now be fulfilled, and Acrisius punished for his wickedness and egotism. Accompanied by Andromeda, now his wife, and by his mother, Danae, Perseus decides to return to Argos. As a good prince, he has forgiven his grandfather: he has no wish to punish him, for he understands that basically Acrisius did what he did out of fear that the oracle might be fulfilled. Perseus wishes to pardon him. But Acrisius learns that Perseus is on his way home and is terrified by the prophecies of the oracle. He immediately takes flight to a neighboring city, Larissa, where he demands protection from the ruler of this city, Teutamides. As it happens, the latter is holding an athletic contest: one of those tournaments that the Greeks of the time were so keen on organizing, in which young men measure up to one another in all kinds of competitions. Acrisius is invited by his friend the king to enjoy the spectacle. At the same time, learning that these games are being held so near to Argos, which is on his route, Perseus cannot resist the pleasure of competing. He excels at throwing the discus. As ill luck would have it, the first discus he throws strikes Acrisius on the foot, killing him instantly.
Let us not inquire as to how a discus that strikes your foot can kill you instantly. It is irrelevant. What counts is that justice is accomplished, and that destiny—which is but another word for cosmic order—has reasserted itself. Order is restored, and Perseus can live out the rest of his life in tranquility, between his mother and his wife, surrounded by the children with which she will not fail to provide him. At his death, Zeus, his father, will make a signal gesture of commemoration for a mortal: to reward his courage and his contribution to the upholding of cosmic order, Perseus is inscribed for eternity in the heavenly vault, in the form of a constellation that was said to describe the contours of his human face… .
IV. Another combat in the name
of dikè: Jason, the Golden Fleece, and
the marvelous voyage of the Argonauts
With Jason, we leave behind the category of heroic monster-slayers. He will, of course, encounter some of these on his voyage—a fire-spitting bull, fearsome warriors who spring directly from the earth, Harpies, a dragon, and so forth—whom he, too, as a hero must overcome. But this is not the heart of his story, as it is with Heracles, Theseus, or even Perseus. Jason exists above all to redress an injustice perpetrated by a villainous king, Pelias, a sin against the gods as much as against his own kind. And to put things back in place, to restore a just order, faced with the misdeeds of this evil, baleful sovereign, Jason must go in search of a mythical object, the Golden Fleece, about which I shall say a few preliminary words, by way of introduction to the adventures that follow.
What then is this Golden Fleece? Its story—at least in the most usual version, found in Apollodorus—begins with the account of a king, Athamas, who ruled over Boeotia, the farming region from which Hesiod originated. Athamas has just married a young woman, Nephele, with whom he has two children, a boy named Phrixus and a daughter, Helle. But soon afterward he remarries, this time to Ino, daughter of Cadmus, king of Thebes and husband of Harmonia (herself the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite). Much later, Ino will become a sea goddess, but for the moment she is a simple mortal—and a jealous one at that: she cannot endure the children of Athamas and Nephele, to the point that she thinks up a terrible stratagem to remove them from the scene. As I have said, Boeotia is a region of small farmers, whom citizens of the capital affect to despise because they seem uncultivated, unsophisticated. Besides, even today “Boeotian” is sometimes used to indicate someone a little naive or rough around the edges. Ino therefore has little difficulty in coming up with a cock-and-bull story that persuades all the women of the region that they must secretly roast the wheat grain over a fire, so as to kill the seed before it is sown by their menfolk.
The following year, the earth fails to produce its crop, and nothing grows. Deeply concerned, Athamas—who is, of course, ignorant of his new wife’s scheming—sends envoys to Delphi to consult the famous oracle. But Ino, still pulling strings, persuades the envoys to tell Athamas that, according to the oracle, the earth will become fertile again and the supposed anger of the gods be appeased only if he sacrifices to Zeus his children, Phrixus and Helle. Athamas is horrified and resists, but the credulous farmers believe the oracle and threaten to revolt against their king: from all quarters they clamor for his children to be sacrificed. Athamas is compelled to give way, and with a heavy heart, he leads the unfortunate victims to the place of sacrifice. But at this point Nephele, their mother, intervenes, with the help of Zeus—who is not best pleased by Ino’s machinations, and who sends his faithful messenger Hermes to the assistance of Phrixus and Helle. The assistance takes the form of a ram, which Hermes gives to Nephele. This is no ordinary ram since, instead of the wool that is sported by all the other rams in the world, it bears a magnificent fur—a golden “fleece,” in effect—and is, moreover, winged. Instantly Nephele places her children on its back and the creature takes to the skies, toward a less hostile region, namely the land of the Colchians. Alas, while they are flying, little Helle falls into the sea and drowns: the sea where she dies is called the “Hellespont”—known today as the Dardanelles Strait, separating Europe and Asia.
Her brother, Phrixus, for his part reaches their destination unharmed. There he is given a kind welcome by Aietes, king of Colchis. In gratitude, Phrixus sacrifices the ram. A more satisfying variant of this story tells that the ram itself asks to be sacrificed so as to shed its mortal form and return to the divine world of the gods. Whatever the case, Phrixus gives the Golden Fleece to Aietes, which some say will protect the region—and that, on the contrary, evil will befall him if he allows it to be taken away or captured. Aietes has the fleece nailed to an oak, in front of which he posts a terrifying dragon, which never sleeps, to guard it night and day… .
And this is the fleece that Jason must fetch. On whose behalf? And why? To answer these questions, we need to return to Jason’s childhood. Here again, our source for the most part is Apollodorus, which needs to be complemented here and there by another work of fundamental relevance: that of a poet who lived in the third century BC, Apollonius of Rhodes, to whom we owe a lengthy work, Homeric in form, about Jason’s expedition to Colchis, titled the Argonautica.
The story begins in the manner of a fairy tale. There was once a man named Aeson, who was half brother to the king of the city of Iolcos, the famous Pelias—who, as I have said, was a very wicked man… . The throne of Iolcos ought by rights to have passed to Aeson, and then to his son Jason. But Pelias has seized it by force, and illegitimately. Jason firmly intends one day to assert his father’s rights and, when the time comes, his own rights, against this unjust uncle, in order to recover the throne that is rightfully theirs.
I should add at the outset, so that you will more clearly grasp the villainy of the usurper, that Pelias ends by murdering his half brother, to be certain of not being divested of the throne. To be sure, he does not do the deed himself, but the effect is perhaps worse: Aeson learns that Pelias intends to have him assassinated, and he takes the initiative, asking permission to do the job himself, by committing suicide. Pelias accepts, all too happy not to get his hands dirty, and thus does the unhappy father of Jason meet his end. To be on the safe side Pelias goes on to eliminate Jason’s mother, as well as his little brother… . The least one can say about Pelias is that he is thorough.
But it is also said that Pelias behaves unjustly not merely toward fellow mortals: he has also offended several of the Olympian gods, notably Hera, by killing a woman in the very temple of the goddess. What is more, he absolutely refuses to honor Hera and forbids her cult to be practiced in his city, requiring that all sacrifices be reserved for his own father, Poseidon (who has decidedly spawned an impressive number of monsters and louts from his successive liaisons with mortals!). This is why the Olympians decide finally to send Jason to Colchis, not merely on the pretext of fetching the Golden Fleece but also to bring back Medea—the enchantress who is the daughter of Aietes, king of Colchis, and the niece of Circe—so that she can punish Pelias by appropriate means when she returns to Colchis … and we shall see how she does so, to atrocious effect, at the end of the story. This interpretation of the purpose of Jason’s voyage was already offered by Hesiod, whose Theogony refers to Pelias as hybristès—someone driven far astray by hubris—and describes him as “that overbearing, outrageous and presumptuous doer of violence” and specifies in passing that the gods are the instigators of Jason’s voyage, whose principal aim is indeed to bring back Medea. For Hesiod, it is “by the will of the gods” that Medea will be taken from her father, Aietes (with her consent, it should be added, since she falls madly in love with Jason—helped perhaps, as some mythographers suggest, by the efforts of Aphrodite, who sends little Eros to pierce her heart at the moment she first sets eyes on our hero).
Be that as it may, this Pelias is an odious figure who lives in and through hubris—injustice toward his own people as much as toward the gods—and it is Medea (acting through Jason, since it is he who brings her back from Colchis) who will mete out justice in return. But let us not anticipate. The adventure is only beginning, and it will prove no easy matter either to find the Golden Fleece or to steal Medea from her lord and master Aietes, the powerful ruler of Colchis.
Let us return to Jason.
If he has the makings of a hero, it is not merely on account of his birth. There is also his education, as entrusted to the celebrated Cheiron, of whom we have already spoken, one of the sons of Cronus and reputed to be the greatest teacher of all time. Cheiron is a centaur, the wisest and most learned of his kind, and he teaches Jason not only medicine, as he taught Asclepius, but also the arts and sciences, as well as the handling of arms—in which he also instructed Achilles. The young Jason grows up with his parents in the country, outside the city of Iolcos. One fine day he is told that his uncle Pelias is about to offer a great sacrifice by the sea in honor (as always) of Poseidon, and has invited Jason to take part in it. In truth, Pelias has not especially invited Jason, whom he does not know and on whom he has never set eyes, since Aeson mistrusts his half brother and has carefully hidden his son, to protect him from possible assassination. Rather, Pelias has extended a group invitation to all the young men of the region, and it is in this context that Jason goes to the city, desirous to have some explanation finally from his usurper uncle. In order to understand what follows, we also need to know that the oracle at Delphi, consulted one day by Pelias about the future of his regime, has told him—incomprehensibly, as ever—to avoid like a plague “the man who wears but one sandal.” Pelias can make no sense of these words, but on this day he is destined to understand them.
In effect, on his way to the city of Iolcos, Jason has to cross a river. And on the riverbank, beside the water, he encounters a woman who also wishes to cross, but is too old to manage on her own and needs assistance. Jason, who is both well brought-up and already very strong, takes the old woman on his shoulders and begins to ford the stream. His feet search this way and that for some purchase on the pebbles carried along by the current. Sinking into the mud of the riverbed and losing his foothold, Jason finally reaches the other side nonetheless, without mishap. The old woman, as you may perhaps have guessed, is none other than Hera, queen of the gods, who has come down in disguise to see for herself how our young hero is shaping up—and whether he has what it takes to set off on the fearful adventures required to bring back Medea, who in turn will chastise Hera’s mortal enemy. It would seem that Hera is entirely satisfied by this first contact with her future protégé. And, as you have no doubt also guessed, Jason has emerged from the river wearing only one of his sandals! And when Pelias catches sight of a young man arriving with only one sandal, he suddenly remembers the half-forgotten words of the oracle. He questions Jason, asks him who he is, what he wants, what he is doing here, and so forth. He now understands that he has to deal with his own nephew.
If we follow Apollodorus, it is now that Pelias asks Jason, in front of all the young men assembled for the sacrifice, what he would do, in Pelias’s place, were he told by the oracle that a young man wanted to depose him and take his kingdom. Inspired by Hera, and without knowing quite what he is saying, Jason replies: “I would send him off to fetch the Golden Fleece.” Pelias, no doubt even more taken aback than Jason, is delighted by the response: to bring back the Golden Fleece is an impossibility, he thinks to himself; the voyage to find it is already insanely dangerous; as for taking the fleece away from Aietes, king of Colchis, this is not to be thought of. Besides, it is guarded by a dragon, and dreadful ordeals would need to be undergone before wresting it from him. In short, Pelias is certain that Jason has committed the gravest of errors: this young imbecile has just offered the surest means for disposing of himself definitively. Pelias takes Jason at his word, of course, and the whole assembly can now testify to the fact that the young man has undertaken to go and fetch the Golden Fleece himself. He has no alternative but to take up the challenge.
To reach Colchis, Jason will need—before all else, and above all else—a good boat and a brave if not outstanding crew, which is what Jason now sets out to recruit. For the boat he summons the assistance of Argos, son of Phrixus, who arrived as a boy in Colchis astride the sacred ram, fleeing the sacrifice ordained by his father Athamas. Argos is by now an excellent naval architect; however—just to make sure—he will be aided by Athena. The goddess advises him on the construction of the ship; as a final touch she herself adds to the bow a wooden figurehead that has the power of speech and can, if necessary, give navigational aid. As for the crew, it consists of beings who are quite out of the ordinary. They are hereafter called Argonauts, which in Greek means “sailors of the Argo”—Argo being the name of the ship, in honor of its builder. Among the Argonauts—of whom there are fifty, it being a fifty-oared vessel—are several famous heroes, including Heracles, Theseus, Orpheus, the twins Castor and Pollux, and Atalanta—the fastest woman alive at running and the only female presence on board. And there are other remarkable individuals present, less famous perhaps but whose talents are every bit as necessary as those of their more celebrated peers: Euphemus, who can walk on water; Periclymenus, who can take any physical form he chooses; Lynceus, who can see through walls; and the two sons of Boreas, god of the wind, who can fly like birds, which will allow them to chase away the Harpies when necessary. And so forth. It is with these exceptional companions that Jason makes his preparations to sail. And likewise it is with the divine aid of Hera and Athena—itself by no means negligible—that he sets out on a long and dangerous voyage.
The latter will unfold in three distinct stages. There is firstly the voyage to Colchis, where the fleece is to be found. Once there, trials have to be undergone in order to possess the fleece—for King Aietes is not at all willing to part with it. Thirdly comes the return voyage, which will also be full of pitfalls.
But let us begin with the voyage out. The voyage of the Argonauts begins in an extraordinary fashion. Their first port of call is Lemnos, which has one peculiarity: it is an island of women. There are no men to be found, not a single man, which evidently strikes our mariners as strange. Why this absence? By dint of questioning the inhabitants, the Argonauts learn the reason, which is both surprising and unsettling. The Lemnian women had formerly failed to honor Aphrodite. The goddess, vexed, decided to teach them a lesson and afflicted them with an evil smell, which immediately repelled their husbands and generally put off any man who came near them. A curious affliction! As a result of this, their husbands took women captive from the neighboring land of Thrace and promptly bedded them instead. The abandoned wives took this in poor spirit and retaliated by murdering their menfolk. And since this time they have been alone. So they naturally welcome the Argonauts with a good deal of enthusiasm. According to some reports, the Argonauts are only allowed to disembark on condition that they promise to sleep with the islanders.
Either the evil smell has by now abated, or the Argonauts are made of stronger stuff, but they seem to comply with the request without difficulty, given that Jason engenders two sons by the Lemnian queen, Hypsipyle, which in itself suggests that our heroes spend some time on this island, perhaps a little over two years. What do they do during this interval? According to Pindar, they give themselves over to all sorts of athletic games, combats, competitions: in other words, the period on the island serves as preparation for the difficulties ahead, which they will soon encounter on their voyage.
Their trials begin with the second phase of the journey—once again, under unusual and even inauspicious circumstances. The Argonauts have finally set sail once more. They next come to port in the land of the Doliones, a people ruled by a king named Cyzicus. He is a good man, well disposed, who greets our Argonauts warmly and humanely. They soon become the best of friends. They eat together, feast together, exchange gifts, until finally it is time to leave. They say their good-byes, sadly and effusively. The Argo puts out to sea. Unfortunately, during the night a strong offshore wind whips up, which drives the boat inexorably back upon the coast from which they have just sailed. There is nothing to be done about it. During the night, the Argo is forced to land once more among the Doliones. But it is pitch dark, and Cyzicus for his part takes them for invading pirates from a neighboring island. He rouses his soldiers and falls upon the enemy—who are none other than the Argonauts, their new best friends. The latter, equally unable to see in the darkness, are just as convinced that they are under attack by pirates. The two sides fight to the death, and when day comes and the sun lights up the field of battle, the scene is one of horror. The ground is strewn with dead and wounded, and Jason realizes their terrible blunder: he has killed his friend, King Cyzicus, and the gentle Doliones are decimated. The fury of combat gives way to sobbing and cries of despair. They bury the dead and tend the wounded, but nothing is healed. Nothing can give any meaning to this senseless episode, which serves as a terrible warning: during this voyage, the Argonauts must henceforth distrust all appearances and must remain as alert as possible at all times. But the lesson has come at a price… .
The voyage continues, despite everything, with various other stopovers, until they reach the land of the Bebryces, which is under the rule of a certain Amycus. He is anything but a friend, and here at least the Argonauts are in no danger of being deceived by appearances. The son of an embrace between a nymph and Poseidon (whose progeny we would all be happier to manage without), Amycus is endowed with colossal strength, and his favorite pastime is boxing. Except that for Amycus this is neither a sport nor a game: it is a fight to the death, and nothing makes him happier than to kill the unfortunates who have been unable to escape his challenges, from which he invariably emerges victorious. Except on this occasion he faces Pollux, whom the Argonauts have delegated to deal with this problem. And Pollux is no ordinary mortal. Like Heracles and Perseus, he is one of the numerous sons of Zeus, twin brother of Castor (one of the Dioscuri), and his father’s son when it comes to combat. Amycus learns this to his cost: Pollux kills him by a blow to the elbow (let us not ask how a blow to the elbow can kill a man: there are quirks and strangenesses in Greek myth that we must accept at face value …). This episode, moreover, gives a foretaste of what lies in wait for our heroes: even if it is not the essential point of the story, in their quest for the Golden Fleece they must expect to show themselves capable, like all Greek heroes, of confronting assorted monsters and surmounting trials that threaten their lives.
The next stage is no doubt the strangest of all, and aspects of it are frankly comedic. After leaving the land of the Bebryces—having slaughtered an impressive number of their warriors, who were foolish enough to try and avenge their dead king—the Argonauts next drop anchor in a deserted spot. Or rather, not entirely deserted. They encounter someone who will be of particular use to them, a diviner who is greatly reputed for unraveling the future. His name is Phineus, a former king of Thrace who is now blind. According to some accounts he was blinded by Zeus for forewarning humans of the future, knowledge of which is supposedly reserved for the gods. For good measure, Helios (the sun god) sent the Harpies after him, that terrifying and remorseless duo of female creatures with wings. When the Argonauts encounter Phineus he is skeletal, as if he were literally dying of hunger. Having learned that this diviner is a trustworthy soul, they urge him to foretell their route: what lies in wait for them, what trials they must confront and how to surmount them. Phineus whispers that he would advise them happily, but that he is too hungry, that he cannot foretell anything on such an empty stomach.
At first the Argonauts do not understand: “But you must eat,” they tell him. “We shall prepare a feast for you.” Immediately they set to laying a table, full of delicious and appetizing dishes, which they place before the old diviner. But they are about to witness the terrible curse that has been laid upon him. No sooner is the food on the table than the Harpies literally fall upon it: in a moment they have devoured almost everything or carried it off in their claws. Even so, there remains a little food on the table. The Argonauts encourage Phineus to at least take advantage of these few leftovers. But then these foul bird-women drop enormous piles of excrement from the skies onto the table, which soil and spread their stench over the remaining dishes, rendering them quite inedible! A black comedy, of sorts, though not for Phineus, who suffers this appalling fate, comparable only to the unending torments of Tantalus at the hands of the gods.
Happily for Phineus, there are exceptionally gifted individuals among the valiant crew of the Argo—in particular, the two sons of Boreas, god of the wind, who are able to fly like birds. As soon as they see what game the Harpies are playing, they instantly take off after them in hot pursuit. After a while one of the Harpies drops exhausted into the river Tigris, named thereafter the Harpys in memory of this demon. A little later, the second also drops with exhaustion. The spirits of the wind now make them promise on pain of death not to persecute the unfortunate diviner any further. Phineus will finally be able to eat in peace. More important, as far as our heroes are concerned, he will be able to speak. What he tells them is far from reassuring: to arrive at Colchis they will have to negotiate—if they are able—some strange blue-colored rocks. These are known as the Clashing Rocks because, as soon as anything passes between them, they immediately collide together and crush their hapless prey. A thick mist surrounds them, which terrifies mariners and prevents them from seeing the danger before them, and when the rocks come together the clash is tremendous and terrifying. Phineus gives the Argonauts advice that will save their lives: they must release a dove between these reefs before entering between them. If they see the dove pass safely through, this means that the rocks are closing, but not quickly enough to crush it, and that they will shortly open again—at which precise moment the Argo, with the mariners pulling hard on the oars, has a chance of getting safely through.
After hearing this advice the Argonauts put out to sea, and as they approach the rocks, Jason gives the order to do exactly as Phineus has suggested. The mariners release a dove from the prow. The bird makes straight between the rocks and manages to pass through with only the tip of her tail, or “rectrix,” being snipped off as they clash together. It is the closest of shaves. The Argo waits a few moments until the rocks draw apart again; then it shoots forward and, in turn, disappears into the passage that has just opened between the rocks. Not for long, however. As soon as the prow enters the passage, the rocks begin to close again. The men row with all their might; the oars strike the water in rapid cadence, with unimaginable force. And, sure enough, the boat, like the bird, manages to get through. And like the bird, the mariners leave behind the tip of the vessel’s poop—in effect the rear portion of the rudder is shorn off. But this can be repaired, and the Argo continues on its way, this time without misadventure.
After one or two further stops, the Argo finally enters the port city of Colchis, where King Aietes is in residence.
Jason at the court of King Aietes:
the conquest of the Golden Fleece
Their troubles are far from over, however. The Argonauts must now take hold of the fleece. Besides, Jason is an upright young man, not a thief. He starts by going to see the king and politely asking him if he will kindly hand over the famous fleece of gold. No doubt so as to avoid immediate hostilities, Aietes does not say no. But there are certain conditions to be fulfilled. And as you may imagine, these conditions are in fact fearful trials, challenges that Jason must accept, in the course of which King Aietes naturally expects him to lose his life—which will allow Aietes to get rid of this absurd young man and retain his precious treasure into the bargain. Jason must now accomplish two perilous labors, in the manner of Heracles laboring for Hera.
The first consists of harnessing a pair of bulls: they must be placed under a yoke and forced to plow a field—the location of the latter to be indicated to Jason by Aietes. At first sight, there is nothing insurmountable about such a task, except that these are no ordinary bulls. In effect, they have hooves of bronze and their nostrils breathe fire, just like dragons. No one has ever succeeded in approaching them without losing his life. Aietes feels confident: he is convinced that Jason will fail, just like everyone else. But this is without counting on his own daughter Medea, who—as mentioned already—falls in love with Jason at first sight (probably under the influence of Hera). Anguished at the thought that this young man may get himself killed, she draws him aside and proposes a deal: if he agrees to take her away with him and marry her, she will show him how to harness these furious beasts. Naturally Jason accepts. Medea prepares a magic potion: he must rub his whole body, his spear, and his shield with the potion, after which he will be completely invulnerable to fire and steel alike. She tells him, besides, that to yoke the bulls he must grab them directly by the horns—which, of course, is possible only if one is protected from the flames that shoot forth from their nostrils. The next day, Jason enters the arena and, to everyone’s surprise, despite the rivers of fire that issue from these two monsters, despite the furious blows from their bronze hooves, he passes the yoke around their necks without any difficulty and calmly starts plowing, as though he were in charge of a pair of docile oxen.
But the ordeal is not yet over. The second test seems even more daunting: Jason must now sow the teeth of a dragon—which are, of course, no ordinary teeth. As soon as they fall to earth, fearsome armed men spring up from the ground, ready to kill whoever approaches them. It is not by chance that these teeth have fallen into the hands of Aietes. They have an entire history going back to the days of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes and its first king. Cadmus had decided one day to found a city on the site of a fountain guarded by a dragon. This dragon belonged to Ares, god of war. Besides, as you will recall, Cadmus had married the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaestus (who was far from happy at being cuckolded, but that is another story …). In order to draw water, so vital for his city, Cadmus was obliged to kill the dragon. Athena and Ares collected the monster’s teeth—knowing as they did that no sooner were these teeth sown than fully armed warriors would spring from the earth. They then distributed these uncanny seeds: half to Cadmus, so that he could populate his new city, and the other half to Aietes, king of Colchis, so that he would have the means to guard his precious Golden Fleece.
The warriors who spring from the earth are called the Spartans—spartoi in Greek, meaning the “sown men”: those who have been placed in the ground, like seeds, in order to sprout. These sown men have a direct link to the earth (they are “autochthonous,” a Greek term meaning “born of the earth”). Their proximity to the earth evokes, in the present context at least, the violence of the first gods, the children of Gaia—the earth—who existed before the Olympians and who are still close to, and driven by, the primordial chaos. This notion will recur in connection with Sparta, a city given over entirely to war, where all the menfolk are soldiers with a rough upbringing, taciturn and laconic—Laconia being the Greek name for the region of Sparta.
So Jason sows the dragon’s teeth, and these fearsome armed warriors instantly spring from the earth. But Medea comes to the rescue again and suggests a ploy—the same that had already been employed by Cadmus.* These warriors are practically indestructible, of formidable strength and skill in combat; on the other hand, they are not very smart. In fact, they are perfect cretins, brutes who can see no farther than their noses. It suffices to throw a stone into their midst, and each believing he is being attacked by his neighbor, they fall upon one another with such violence that they succeed in exterminating themselves, down to the last man, without Jason having to lift a finger. The path to the fleece is now clear—or nearly so. Were it not that the king, a poor player and a worse loser, refuses to keep his promise. Under cover of darkness, he now plans to set fire to the Argo and murder its crew.
Meanwhile, Jason will take by force what is being unjustly withheld from him. It only remains to dispose of the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece, hanging from its tree. Medea sends the dragon to sleep with one of her potions, and Jason has only to unhook the precious fleece before making his way back to his ship and making off.
When he discovers what his daughter Medea has dared to do, Aietes is furious. He mobilizes his fastest ships and sets off in pursuit of the Argo—at which point Medea commits a dreadful crime, one of the worst in the annals of Greek myth. She has brought her brother with her aboard the Argo. Seeing their father in pursuit, she does not hesitate, but murders the young boy and cuts him into pieces, which she casts overboard: a leg here, an arm there, followed by the head… . The bleeding limbs float on the surface, and the unhappy Aietes recognizes the evidence of his own son. Naturally he orders a halt so as to rescue these remains, in order to make a decent burial, so far as possible. As a result, he loses precious time and the Argo makes unstoppably for the open sea.
The difficult return of the Argonauts to
Iolcos and the punishment of Pelias
Nonetheless, the ordeals of the Argonauts are by no means over. They have yet to return safely to Iolcos, the city of Pelias, to bring him the Golden Fleece as promised. And the return journey is no picnic. In effect, Zeus cannot properly allow the manner in which the Argonauts have escaped from Aietes: the slaughter of Medea’s brother cannot be tolerated, and the ruler of the gods unleashes a terrible tempest against the Argo—a tempest that will oblige the crew to make many detours. Zeus then orders Jason and Medea to go and be purified by Circe, the magician and aunt of Medea. As a result, the voyage of Jason comes to resemble that of Odysseus: the two heroes will undergo comparable ordeals.
Firstly, they must reach the island of Aeaea, home of Circe, and obey her commands, performing all the purificatory rites for the murder committed by Medea. It is only on this condition that the Argo may resume its route to Iolcos. Like Odysseus, the Argo will have to sail past the Sirens, those bird-women whose song is the ruin of any sailors who hear it, invariably tempting them to shipwreck. But instead of having himself lashed to the mast and blocking the ears of his crew, Jason requests Orpheus to sing; his sweet and powerful voice drowns out that of the Sirens, whose song for once is quite powerless. As with Odysseus, the route of the Argonauts also passes those terrifying monsters Charybdis and Scylla: the whirlpool that swallows everything within its reach, and the woman whose body is topped by six dog’s heads. The Argonauts likewise pass the Wandering Rocks, surrounded by flame and smoke, from whose reefs few ships are fortunate to escape. Finally, like Odysseus, Jason skirts the island of Thrinacia, which contains the oxen of the sun, before coming to that of the Phaeacians, where the good king Alcinous gives them a kindly welcome… . And it is here that Jason weds Medea, before setting off again toward Iolcos. The Argo weathers another violent tempest, which Apollo calms by shooting an arrow into the sea, and then the crew attempts to land at Crete.
But on this island there reigns a fearful giant, called Talos. It is said by some that he belongs to the race of bronze, of whom Hesiod writes—that tremendous race of warriors who were invincibly clad in metal. According to other accounts, he has been constructed by Hephaestus himself and given to King Minos to guard his island. Whatever the case, Talos is terrifying. Each day he keeps watch by running around his island three times, killing whatever he encounters on his path. As soon as he sees the Argo approaching, he picks up great stones and hurls them in the direction of the ship. Talos has a weakness, however: he has but a single vein, which runs from his neck to his ankle. Through her drugs and her incantations, Medea succeeds in driving him completely mad—to the point that, while caught up in a sort of demented jig, he grazes his ankle against a sharp rock, which dislodges the stopper that closes his one and only vein. The vital fluid—which takes the place of blood—seeps away through this opening, and Talos falls headlong, stone dead.
After this last ordeal, the Argonauts finally reach Iolcos without further incident.
As I said earlier, Pelias has abandoned any expectation of the Argonauts’ return. Convinced that Jason is dead, he has forced Aeson to take his own life. To be sure to rid himself of anyone who might stand in his way, he has also caused the deaths of Jason’s mother and little brother. When Jason arrives back in Iolcos, he hands over the Golden Fleece nonetheless. But he equally intends to dispense justice and to avenge his loved ones. As foreseen by the gods, since the outset of the voyage, it is Medea who will take charge of the punishment. She persuades the daughters of Pelias that, in order to rejuvenate their father (who is beginning to show his age), they must chop him into small pieces and boil him in a large cooking pot, promising to restore his youth with her drugs. To gain their confidence, she asks for a ram to be brought, which she cuts up and has the pieces thrown into a cauldron, ordering that it be boiled. By sleight of hand (let us not forget that Medea is a sorceress), a magnificent young lamb emerges seconds later from the stew. The daughters of Pelias are immediately convinced. They run off in search of their father, to subject him to the same fate as the ram … with the difference that Pelias will remain forever in a state of boiled morsels! In other words, he meets his death, well and truly, and both Jason and Hera are avenged through the services of Medea.
For ten long years, Jason and Medea live happily together. They have two children. Later, unhappily forsaken by Jason, who remarries, Medea will kill her children to avenge herself. She then sends her husband’s new wife a tunic steeped in poison, of the same sort as killed Heracles. Then she leaves for Athens, where she will marry Aegeus, ruler of that city and father of Theseus, whose adventures we have already described. As for Jason, unlike Medea he is a mere mortal who must sooner or later leave this world. It is said that, one day, as he snoozed beneath the remains of his old ship, the Argo, the speaking figurehead that Athena had fixed to the prow finally fell off and crushed him so that he died instantly. Thus did the boat and her captain end their long journey together.
You may perhaps be surprised that the ultimate end of these heroes is not always very dignified, that it does not really accord with their exploits. This is because heroes are, for the most part, mere mortals. They must die like everyone else, one day or another, and all deaths are as one in their pointlessness. At the same time, heroes are recognized, honored, and admired after their deaths. It is no consolation, but there is a kind of logic to it, a form of intelligible proportion.
Up to this point, if I may summarize somewhat roughly what we have seen since the voyage of Odysseus (at the outset of our journey), everything unfolds, in a certain sense, quite “logically.” The trajectory of Odysseus is, of course, full of pitfalls, but in the end he reaches his destination, his island, where he restores order and harmony, and where he lives out many subsequent years among his own people… . If we consider the figures driven by hubris, likewise, their stories also prove to be perfectly rational: they commit a fault, even a crime, and the cosmos, as embodied by the gods, puts the situation to rights and restores justice, no doubt brutally but nonetheless according to an intelligible design. As for the monster-slaying heroes, even if they end their days like everyone else, public opinion elevates them at least to the status of a cult, or else they are deified or packed off to the Elysian Fields, as in the case of Heracles… .
There remains a lurking question, however, which seems, on the surface at least, to break with the norms we have seen at work thus far. Put simply, how are we to understand the misfortunes that befall poor humans who have done nothing wrong, nor anything remotely out of the ordinary? Who have neither defied the gods through hubris, nor sought out unusual adventures, nor shown extraordinary courage in going after malevolent and magical entities? How do we explain all these calamities that swoop down on us, without our being able to do anything in response: children with birth defects; early deaths that take away our loved ones; scourges that devastate our crops and provoke famines; cyclones; and other catastrophes that wipe out at a stroke so many innocent lives? Here is a mystery to which the stories we have so far encountered do not supply a key. The myth of Oedipus, on the other hand, together with all that follows for his descendants, and in particular for his daughter Antigone, may permit us to glimpse an answer to this most enigmatic question of all… .