Posts Tagged ‘Greek Mythology’

A Powerful Personality

September 19, 2015

Achilles absent was Achilles still.  -Homer, The Iliad

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Zephyrus

August 31, 2015

Zephyrus -named for the West Wind- was the horse given to Polyxena by Antiope, the Amazon commander. She rode him throughout her stay with the Amazons and on her return trip to Troy and often relates her joy over this..

At one time:  I was on Zephyrus -what a horse! He so easily responded to my commands that I could have led him without uttering a single word, just by small motions of my hand or body.

Another time:  I was never more happy to see Zephyrus than when Antiope brought him to me, and I felt absolutely certain the stallion regarded me in the same way, for he truly responded wonderfully to my control of his reins, its familiarity being received with utmost contentment.

A Censure of Polyxena

July 27, 2015

  “Do not try to lecture me, foolish woman….I asked you to accompany us because I believed you had what it takes to be one of us. I was wrong. You will never be an Amazon.”      -Penthesilea

Initial Impressions

June 24, 2015

        He had flaming red hair, such as rarely seen.  -Polyxena on first seeing her nemesis, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. 

Variations to Polyxena’s Story

February 11, 2011

Polyxena is known to us primarily through her death; very little has been written about her life.   She is sacrificed by the Greeks to the Sea-God Poseidon to assure their smooth sailing home -the Trojan counterpart to the Greek Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed for good winds to Troy.  Polyxena is mentioned in the dialogue of The Trojan Women and is a character in Hecuba , dramas by Euripides presented in the late 5th Century BCE, where her death is demanded by the ghost of Achilles after the fall of Troy.  The Latin writers, Vergil in The Aeneid, and Ovid in Metamorphosis similarly give this as the cause of her death, as does Seneca in his Troades.  Euripides may be the earliest account of her; in Hecuba, Polyxena tells her mother of her preference of death to living a slave, an idea eagerly embraced by the Romans centuries later.  Once it was decided that her sacrifice served both purposes, classical writers strove to invent stories how she and Achilles came to know each other.  Here is where variations occur.

One version has Polyxena at a fountain with her brother, Troilus, where he was watering his horse, when Achilles comes upon them, pursues Troilus and kills him; she manages to escape but not before arousing his passions and leaving her imprint in his mind, so that he (or rather, his ghost) asks for her in a dream to his son, Neoptolemus, after Troy falls.

Another version is that Polyxena accompanied Priam and Andromache (Hector’s wife) when he met with Achilles to retrieve the body of his slain son.  Achilles remained unmoved by the pleas of Priam and Andromache, but was swayed to relent his hard stand by Polyxena when she offered to remain with him as a slave.  This account has Achilles smitten by her and proposing to betray the Greek cause if Polyxena was his; agreements  are made for their union, and Achilles is ambushed and slain by Paris when he comes to finalize the arrangement.   

A twist to this version has Polyxena betraying Achilles, pretending to love him and getting him to reveal his vulnerable spot, his heel, to her; when he comes to finalize their wedding plans, he is ambushed by Paris and Deiphobus, Polyxena’s brothers, and slain. Hyginus, in his Fabulae supports this view.   Connected to this story is a rendition that she commits suicide in remorse over what she had done. 

Latin writers, like their Greek counterparts, focused their attention on Polyxena’s death, but they seemed to have a greater interest depicting her with patriotic zeal in opposing the Greeks, giving her uncommon courage in facing death (displaying a defiance towards the Greeks that the Romans probably secretly took delight in since they claimed their ancestry to Aeneas of Troy).  In their works, which are actually quite moving, Polyxena demonstrates a clear preference of death to slavery, and literally dares her executioners to proceed, while she remains calm and unafraid right up to very end.       

The Polyxena of my novel is more of a real person, fearing her impending death, and struggling to work up the courage to face it.  She and Achilles very much loved each other, and he does reveal the vulnerability of his heel to her, but it is through treachery that her brothers learn of it, allowing them to ambush and slay him.   You will have to read my book on how that happens.

On Homer

February 7, 2011

Homer is our primary source on the Trojan War.  He is the Ionian poet who is credited with having created the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, although, it must be said that there are doubters that these works were composed by the same person and may have even been composed by several persons, but the most widely held position maintains that they are the creations of a single artistic mind (this reminds one of today’s disputes about William Shakespeare).  There are a number of other poets who have left us with pieces of their work on the Trojan War between the period 800-500 BCE, which have been lumped together as the ‘Epic Cycle’, but we have no names for them.

Hardly anything is known about the man, and stories when he lived and where he was born vary greatly.  There is a tradition that he was blind, and that he was from Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), but again, six other cities claim as being his birthplace, and that he most likely lived in the 8th century BCE.   There are some who doubt if he existed at all. He apparently voiced his work, following the oral traditions of his time, and it is believed that the stories he spoke of were not put into writing until the 6th Century BCE for use in Athens, in texts that were said to be slanted to increase the city’s role in Troy’s fall.  In the 2nd Century BCE, two renowned scholars in Alexandria, Aristarchus of Samothrace and Aristophanes of Byzantium, edited the texts again, giving us the version that is generally known today. 

Homer devised many of the techniques we associate with modern day structures of novels, such as flashbacks and parallel lines of action.  His narratives are appreciated for their simplicity, the descriptions of their characters, giving them unique personalities, and the realism of the action portrayed in the passages.  Even today, in reading his works, we are struck by the attention to details, the richness of the language employed -the heroes speak to us as if they were our contemporaries, presenting us with emotional conflicts no different from our own.  The Iliad is considered to be the greatest war epic ever written.  The adjective ‘Homeric’ is now used to reference the Bronze Age of the Achaean Greeks, a time period associated with great warriors performing heroic deeds, rich palaces, and epic events, evidently so memorable that four to five hundred years later they still evoked an almost nostalgic curiosity among the ancient Greeks. 

It should be mentioned here that Polyxena is unkown to Homer; she is the creation of later classical writers who were interested in romanticizing the stories of Troy’s fall.

My Visit to Troy

February 3, 2011

Turkey is a treasure trove of great archaeological sites, but Troy (Truva locally), near Hissarlik, is not one of them.  I visited the site in June, 1990, before I ever imagined I would someday write a novel about it, but, even back then, I was into the Trojan myths and knew my Iliad, and I remember looking upon it with some dismay.  At the entrance you pass a sculpture of a wooden horse, resembling an undersized version of the horse in the 1955 movie, Helen of Troy.  In my mind’s eye, Troy should have been considerably larger and I could not envision it as the city of the Iliad.  If this is indeed Troy, I was thinking, the ruins we see must be of city’s inner citadel, the Pergamus, rather than the city itself.  The massive impregnable walls depicted in the Iliad, with its huge Scaean and Dardanian gates, cannot be mentally connected to this site and therein lies much of its disappointment.   But if you’re into Greek mythology or classical literature, you should go there (other sites like Ephesus and Pergamon provide awesome compensations).

I know that Heinrich Schliemann claimed he found the site based on descriptions in the Iliad, probably its proximity to the Karamenderes River -the Scamandrus River of the Iliad- and distant Mount Ida.  The site is now generally accepted as the real Troy.  There are actually nine Troys there (with Troy VI and Troy VII having sub-division layers) and the consensus is that Troy VII-A is the one of the Iliad (covering a time span of 1300-1190 BCE).  The layers denote separate destructions of the city (either by war or natural disaster).  Troy II rewarded Schliemann with the greatest treasures, and he believed it to be Homer’s city, but its fall has now been dated at around 2250 BCE, much earlier than the Troy of the Iliad.   Only reluctantly have I accepted this site as Troy.     

It was when I tried to imagine Achilles chasing Hector around the site that it really let me down.  For one thing, it is on a steady slope rising from the seashore (which is a long way off) to the hills behind it, with its inland side at a higher elevation than the side facing the coast.  Nowhere does it say in the Iliad that Troy stood on any gradation.  How could Achilles drag Hector behind his chariot around the walls if it was on a slope?   You readily assume the city was on flat grounds.  This is a classic (pardon the pun) example of romanticism and reality clashing, and I admit to being a romanticist at heart, preferring the idealized, imagined glory of a place to its grim, stark actual presence.

I suspect that Homer embellished Troy in his Iliad, giving it a grandeur that exceeded its times -much as we today tend to give King Arthur’s Camelot a magnificence exceeding the engineering capabilities and political realities of its days (if it even existed).  None of this detracts from the greatness and fascination of these stories; it’s their characters that hold our attention and rivet us to the drama depicted as having happened there.  The fact that there is a Troy, or a Tintagel in the case of Camelot, adds flavor, giving the stories a legitimacy; it doesn’t matter what the places look like -I am grateful that they are there.

On The Trojans

January 31, 2011

Who were the Trojans?   Many scholars think they were Phrygians, a Greek speaking people who moved into western Anatolia around the collapse of the Hittite Empire as part of the movement attributed to the Sea People.  Herodotus says the Phrygians were originally from Macedonia and Thrace, but there are problems with the chronology; for one thing, the demise of the Hittites occurred around 1200 BCE, which is also the time in which the Troy of the Iliad was destroyed (its fall placed sometime from 1250 to 1184 BCE).   Also in the Iliad the Phrygians are identified as allies of Troy in the Trojan War.  That part can be explained by Phrygia being a smaller state than at first because other peoples, namely the Mysians, Lycians, and Lydians had also moved into the land and formed their own kingdoms (but again, chronology raises questions -these kingdoms being of a later time period, yet also described as Troy’s allies in the Iliad). 

Troy (Ilium or Ilios in Greek, Truva in Turkish), now considered to be the site found near Hissarlik in Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann, was found to predate the Phrygians, and actually goes back to around 3000-2500 BCE and may have been Hittite city then.  It had a Hittite name, Wilusa or Truwisa; there are other Hittite connections, such as the names of kings, suggesting them as the Trojans of the Iliad. 

Language does not help because in mythology there are no language barriers; no matter how remote the people exist (the Amazons, Colchis in Jason and the Argonauts) they speak the same language and are able to communicate with everyone else.  So we are left with the same question: who were the Trojans?  No matter what the answer, it has no impact on the greatness of the stories that have been written about them.  Troy’s appeal remains timeless, and that we definitely owe to the Greeks.  So my appreciation is for the Greeks, for Homer, and their glorious civilization.

On Cassandra…

January 14, 2011

I want to comment on Polyxena’s clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.  I’ve stated in a previous blog how Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo in having the ability to foresee the future but never being believed by anyone.  He placed this curse on her because, as his priestess, she refused to give up her chastity for him (this makes one ponder what duties such functions incurred).  Cassandra is a pathetic figure, hounded by misfortune.  Not only was she never believed, but even held to be mad; she lost her lover, Coroebus, slain by Neoptolemus; she was raped by Ajax of Locris on the night Troy fell; she was taken by Agamemnon as a concubine, only to be then slain along with him by the king’s wife, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, in Mycenae (she predicts this fate to Polyxena).

Polyxena has an interesting relationship with Cassandra.  For much of my novel, she views her sister as unsociable and estranged from the rest of the family, but often seeks her out, wanting her advice, yet, true to Apollo’s curse, never taking it.  She tells us: I once made a record of her prophecies regarding coming events and was astonished to learn she had been correct in all her predictions.  In spite of this, I am ashamed to admit that I regularly disputed her warnings and even ignored them. They are alike in some ways; both exhibit an independent spirit and shun the womanly social gatherings in the palace.  Polyxena’s mother, Hecuba, speaks about this:  “My other disagreeable daughter.  You’re becoming more like her every day, Polyxena.  She hides from me in Apollo’s temple, you in your riding.  Why can’t you two behave as normal women?”

Cassandra warns Polyxena that Neoptolemus will prove her undoing, but she minimizes the threat in her thinking:  What else could place me in danger of Neoptolemus except the fall of the city itself.  Otherwise I obviously would be able to shun him.  But that would have horrible consequences for all of us, not just me.  This told me that, while I may be in danger, my peril was no worse than anyone else’s….Increasingly her admonitions seemed less and less relevant to my safety.  I do wish she was less dramatic in her presentations.

After Troy falls, and the Trojan women are held captive in their compound, Polyxena warms up to Cassandra, becoming close to her and admiring her toughness:  Cassandra remained as steady as a rock under our duress, never complaining or even lamenting our fate….I was drawn to her constancy, her poise significantly alleviating the fears dogging me, and spent a lot of time with her, seeking out the reassurance she instilled in me.

When Polyxena learns she is doomed and tells Cassandra about it, her sister says: “Have courage, Polyxena.  Accept what the fates have decreed for you.  Let the Greeks know the mettle Trojan women are made of.” This comforts Polyxena:  She pleased me with those words, instilling in me a resolve to bravely embrace the end in store for me.  I was not going to depart this world bemoaning my destiny, whimpering like a child, giving the Greeks the pleasure of seeing me stripped of my dignity, cowardly in my exhortations for mercy.  Once again, Cassandra gave me the strength of will to undergo the ordeal waiting for me.  I was truly indebted to her. In the end, Polyxena draws much of her courage from Cassandra.

Character Profile on Helen of Troy…

January 10, 2011

Helen, a name synonymous with Troy itself; ‘golden-haired Helen’, Homer describes her; the most beautiful woman in the world circa 1200 BCE, with ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’.  I will briefly comment on how she is perceived by Polyxena.

When Polyxena first meets a squad of Amazons, a rather homely looking bunch, she makes an allusion to Helen: No ship would be launched for their sake.  And when she sees their commander, the stunningly beautiful Antiope, she again makes that allusion: Even Helen would have found serious competition in her. So Helen is the personification of beauty, the definitive standard by which it is compared and judged.

Is Polyxena envious of Helen’s beauty?  I do hint that she might be, but in a different sense.  By that I mean:  Helen is a generation older, in her mid-thirties; Polyxena, having a good self-image of her own, would not have regarded Helen a rival for suitors, seeing her as a family member, growing up with her, but she also would have become aware of how men reacted to her, observing their behavior in her presence.  This awareness is not often well received by Polyxena.  She makes inferences to that throughout my story; an example of this happens when she is being celebrated on her return to Troy: “What an extraordinary adventure you’ve had,” said Deiphobus, glancing more at Helen than me, tactless to be sure and quite annoying to me. Another illustration is when Helen must choose a new husband:  No raving beauty like Helen was going to avert the competition to possess her that would result out of her being single again.  An ordinary woman might have been left to her own devices….but never Helen, the most sought-after woman that ever lived.  Men craved her; they always had.   Most frustrating to Polyxena is how men always hold Helen blameless in things, even her father, Priam:  Despite this, he was ever cordial to Helen and never once alluded to her having contributed to the misery that plagued him.  She had that effect on men; they were endlessly willing to forgive her -for everything!- and sought to endear themselves to her.  That is how it has always been, from the very beginning to the present……Helen was absolved of any transgressions in the fate befalling Troy, the responsibility being continuously attributed to the gods instead.   In today’s language, we call that ‘sucking up to her’.

The power that Helen’s beauty wields over men is best demonstrated on the night Troy falls, when Polyxena describes the scene where Menelaus, the Spartan king Helen had forsaken, again meets her:

Menelaus strode up to Helen, bent on avenging the injury and humiliation she caused him.  He raised his sword -did I misjudge him?- and for an instant there, I thought he might indeed kill her.  But then she looked at him, tears streaming from her face, and if ever there was a sight to melt a man’s heart, it was that of Helen in grief, peering into his eyes, her lovely face at its pitiful best, amplifying her suffering.  He paused in his observation and then sheathed his weapon.  Helen’s future was secure.

My choice of words ‘pitiful best’ reveals Polyxena’s feelings.