L I V I N G ... M Y T H S
 
Greek myths in brief
 











 

Medusa

The Medusa, slain by Perseus with a little help from the gods


Chaos and Gaia

The Creation of the World. Out of original Chaos come Gaia (Mother Earth) and Eros. Gaia gives birth to Uranos, the sky god. They unite to give birth to twelve Titans, three Cyclopes and three monsters. Uranos pushes them back into Gaia’s womb (the earth), but Gaia persuades the youngest Titan, Cronus, to help her avenge them. Cronus cuts off his father’s genitals, which fall into the sea, turn into foam and create Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Explores the Greek understanding of chaos as ‘open space’ and Eros as the metaphysical attraction of two forces; also the nature of the Great Mother and the role of the Titans as first divine race and inventors of the arts and magic. Uranos creates monsters and then Aphrodite. The manner of her birth is significant: like her male counterpart Ares, with whom she later has an affair, she has only one parent. Her association with foaming genitals, or sperm, is appropriate for a goddess of love.

Echo and Narcissus

The nymph Echo is punished by the goddess Hera, for misusing her gift of speech, so that she can only echo the voices of others. She falls in love with Narcissus, who spurns her and instead falls in love with his own reflection in a pool and drowns trying to reach it. Grieving, Echo fades away until only her voice remains.

Explores the power of Hera, who was worshipped long before Zeus, and who demands her former status. Narcissism represents anima/animus projection, also an early and necessary stage of psychic development. Echo colludes in the Narcissistic stage, and is herself undeveloped.

Zeus and Danae

Acrisius, King of Argos, is told by an oracle that he will be killed by his grandson, so he locks his daughter Danae in a tower. However, Zeus transforms into a shower of gold in order to enter the tower and have his way with an unsuspecting Danae. She bears him a son, Perseus. The King sets mother and son adrift on the sea in a wooden casket, but Zeus protects them and brings them to an island, where Perseus grows up.

Examines the new patriarchy in the nature of Zeus and celebrates his  fertility and powers of transformation. It also explores fate and human attempts to defy or manipulate it. Finally,it embodies the deep symbolism of the hero child born of the divine father and mortal mother who has special powers and a special destiny.

Perseus and Medusa

King Polydectes sends Perseus on a dangerous mission to capture the head of the Gorgon Medusa. He has many adventures, including encountering the three Graeae, who share one eye between them. He also obtains gifts from Hermes – winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, and a scimitar for beheading Medusa. From the goddess Athena he obtains a polished shield for reflecting the Gorgon’s gaze. He is successful and uses the head to good effect in many adventures, including rescuing Andromeda from a sea-monster. He finally uses it to kill King Polydectes. He returns to Argos with his mother and Andromeda but accidentally kills his grandfather with a discus during some funeral games.

This myth explores the hero role, linking it to the tasks of the developing ego. It shows the significance of empowering gifts and the symbolism of Hermes and Athena: communication and warlike courage tempered with feminine wisdom. It also contains the powerful negative anima symbolism of Medusa’s serpent-hair, coupled with her ability to turn humans to stone, and shows the right use of such powers. The beheading is very likely linked to the many other mythical beheadings, such as that of the Celtic Bran, the Arthurian Green Knight, and even John the Baptist.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus was either the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, or possibly of the god Poseidon. His mother raised him away from Athens and sent him back to Aegeus when he came of age. His heroic adventures on the way include overcoming Sinis the Pine-bender, and Procrustes, who famously shaped his guests to the size of his bed. Theseus narrowly escapes being poisoned by his father’s consort Medea before being recognized by his father. Intending to kill the Minotaur, he journeys to Crete as one of the youths to be given to the monster as tribute. In Crete Ariadne, daughter of Minos, gives him a clew, a ball of thread, so he can find his way out of the labyrinth. He kills the Minotaur, escapes, and sails to Athens with Ariadne. In most versions he abandons her on Naxos. Owing to an apparent oversight, Theseus arrives to find his father has killed himself presuming his son is dead. So Theseus becomes King.

The most ancient part of the story – the killing of the Minotaur – is the least politicized and has the most resonance today. The labyrinth is the unconscious, which the hero must enter to overcome the monster. The Minotaur represents the dark, devouring side of matriarchy which must be encountered and transformed – with the help of the ‘clew’ (origin of ‘clue’), the thread of self-observation showing the way out. The word labyrinth is derived from ‘labrys’, a double-headed axe – shaped like a butterfly, and thus representing transformation, but also linked to ‘labia’. Encountering one’s personal minotaur in the passageways of the unconscious leads to psychic transformation. Some commentators see the whole myths as solar. According to this way of thinking, Ariadne is a solar goddess, and Theseus abandons her because he knows that close relations with a goddess can prove fatal.

Hades and Persephone

Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the harvest goddess. Her uncle Hades wants her for his wife. Zeus acquiesces, knowing Demeter will never consent to it. He causes a beautiful narcissus to grow. Persephone, examining it, loses sight of her friends, whereupon a chasm appears through which Hades arrives to carry her away to the Underworld. Unable to find her daughter, Demeter wanders, distraught, looking for her, and neglects the earth so that it stops being fruitful. Famine results and the people cry to Zeus for help. He finally decrees that if Persephone has not eaten anything in Hades she can return. But Persephone has eaten six pomegranate seeds, and must therefore spend six months of each year in Hades. Thus while Persephone is on earth Demeter is happy and the earth is fruitful; for the other six months she mourns and the earth is barren.

At one level this is a fertility myth dealing with the renewal of the earth’s resources. At another it describes the matriarchal era being disrupted by separation from nature, and by patriarchy. On a personal level it deals with the mother/daughter relationship and how the daughter must individuate and leave the realm of the Mother to find the animus within and become effective in the world. Astrologically Hades is agent of transformation and growth through loss.

Orpheus and Euridice

Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope (one of the Muses), is a skilled musician who can charm birds and animals with his lyre. He falls in love with Euridice and marries her. But one day she is bitten by a serpent and dies. Orpheus, heart-broken, begs Zeus to restore her. Zeus gives him permission to seek her in Hades, but warns of its dangers. Orpheus overcomes these with music and eventually finds his wife. He is allowed to take her away on condition that he does not look back at her as they leave. However, just before reaching the surface, he looks back and loses her a second time. He spends the rest of his days singing mournful songs accompanied by his lyre. This infuriates the Bacchantes, who tear him to pieces. The gods rescue his lyre and set it in the sky as a constellation.

Orpheus is an older god, an unconscious layer of the mind, which is closer to the animals and birds and even the rocks and stones, and has the power to tame them. He is also a guide in the realms of the unconscious, but also demonstrates the risks of ‘looking back’. As the hero who enters Hades and attempts to restore his beloved, he is a type of Christ-figure. He has also been identified with the Fisher King of Grail legend. He shows how creativity can be used to cross the threshold between the unconscious and the conscious. He inspired an ancient mystical cult.

Eros and Psyche

Psyche, youngest and most beautiful of three princesses, excites the envy of Aphrodite, who tells her son Eros to inflame her with an unsuitable passion. Instead Eros falls in love with her himself. He manages to have her plunge from a cliff-top and conveys her to a palace on an island. Here he visits her every night and makes love to her, but she never sees his face. One day she persuades him to let her family visit. Her sisters urge her to contrive to see him in case he is a monster. The following night she lights a lamp over him while he sleeps, and finds that he is a beautiful youth. A drop of lamp oil wakes him and he leaves her immediately, the palace disappearing too.

She wanders disconsolate, then decides to serve Aphrodite, who sets her impossible tasks, which she accomplishes. Her final task is to fetch beauty oil from Hades. She accomplishes this, but cannot resist opening the casket. Out flies Sleep and renders her unconscious. At this point Eros re-enters the story, rescuing her from unconsciousness (cf. ‘Sleeping Beauty’). Finally he defies his mother and marries Psyche.

For the Greeks, Eros symbolized the heart, and Psyche the soul, often represented by butterfly wings. The myth explores the conflict between the older and younger woman, mother and daughter-in-law. It charts the progress of Psyche from an unconscious to a conscious state. In the process she must undertake traditionally masculine heroic deeds: Eros is tied to his mother, so Psyche has to perform the feats for him. This, however, is effective. He steps in finally and releases her from a second bout of unconsciousness, stands up to his mother and marries Psyche. This is very much a story of our time. The journey of the psyche is well charted and the conflict between mother and daughter-in-law will be recognized by many.

Phrixus and Helle

The children of King Athamus and Nephele. Athamus puts away Nephele and marries Ino. She is jealous of Phrixus and Helle and plots to kill them, but Nephele intervenes and she ends up killing her own two sons instead. So Ino causes a famine and bribes the priests of the Delphic Oracle to say that Phrixus must be sacrificed to Zeus to save the land. Phrixus agrees but is saved at the last minute by a golden ram sent by his mother Nephele, who has been given it by Hermes. The ram flies off with both children on its back. Sadly, Helle falls off and gives her name to the Hellespont. Phrixus is put down in Aea, welcomed by its king, and marries his daughter Chalciope. The ram is offered to Zeus and its fleece given to the king, who hangs it from an oak and sets a dragon to guard it. It becomes the famous Golden Fleece sought by Jason.

Explores both sides of the mother figure, the good and the bad. The good, protective mother has to withdraw in order for the process of initiation to begin in the child, who must face life’s challenges. Something of the good mother will remain in the child in the form of guiding inner wisdom or intuition. In this tale the good mother assists in the challenges faced by her children. The bad mother, or shadow-side, pushes the child into dangers which have to be faced for maturity to occur. The ram has solar connections and symbolizes the sun and masculinity. Being the gift of Hermes, it also has the gift of speech. It carries the children into the realm of rationality and activity. Helle is unable to stay with it but it leads Phrixus to a rich prize. The Golden Fleece ultimately becomes a symbol of spiritual achievement and is hung on theTree of Life.

Jason and the Argonauts

Jason’s uncle Pelias has usurped the throne from his father. Jason’s mother sends him away to be raised by Chiron the Centaur. On coming of age he sets out to claim his throne, aided by Hera. King Pelias, however, sends him on a quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason sets out in a specially built ship, the Argo, with many heroes. Their challenges include overcoming the Harpies and escaping the clashing rocks. Jason eventually arrives at the court of King Aetes, who sets him new tasks. Jason completes these with the help of Aetes’ daughter Medea, who has fallen in love with him. She also enables him to capture the Fleece.

Examines the difficult journey of the individual into the realm of the divine, seeking spiritual knowledge, as symbolized by the Golden Fleece. The energies of the hero are sufficient for the beginning of the journey when wit and creativity can be used to outwit opponents, but as he reaches a deeper and more difficult phase of the journey he finds his masculine gifts are not sufficient and he must accept help from the feminine in order to secure his spiritual goal. One view is that this diminishes his heroic stature.