28 March, 2009

reflection1It was often the case that the goddess Juno would search for her errant husband in order to catch him at his most beloved hobby, that of seducing the fair nymphs that lived on the mountainsides and in the streams of the world. But during her search she would often be waylaid by one particularly clever Nymph who went by the name of Echo. Echo would prattle on to the goddess about this and that and distract her long enough that Juno’s husband would have time to get back to Mount Olympus and pretend that nothing had ever happened. It was not for the sake of mighty Jupiter that Echo would slow down Juno’s rampage, but for her own sisters who would often be on the business end of the goddess’ tantrums. Alas for Echo it was only a matter of time before Juno grew aware of the trick and as punishment she altered Echo’s speech so that she could only speak when others had spoken, and could only repeat what she had heard. The loquacious Echo was devastated by her lack of speech and fled from her sisters to wander the world.

After a time Echo spied a young man walking in the woods. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen and Echo immediately fell madly in love with him. He seemed lost in thought, but Echo ran out to talk to him. She beamed in delight but could say no words until he spoke first. Alas for poor Echo she had encountered a man who was under his own curse. He could not fall in love with anyone less beautiful than himself, and although Echo was a nymph of exceptional splendour, she was not quite the equal of the young man. He had never known love, only the attentions of many who he could never find companionship with. Now yet another woman was gazing at him but saying nothing. He turned away but she was insistent and followed his every move.

“You are quite the most annoying creature!”

“Annoying creature” she replied.

“What do you want?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to go away and leave me!”

“leave me?”

“Yes, I just want to be left alone!”


Echo fled from the young man, weeping as she did. She could not communicate with him, could not speak and explain what had happened. She fled to a lonely mountain and stayed there, crying and sobbing, never sleeping, always awake. For weeks she cried and neither ate nor drank and she slowly wasted away until nothing of her remained but her voice.

Many months later Echo returned to the woods. No longer a nymph, merely a spirit, she once again spied the young man. This time he was kneeling by the edge of a calm and clear pool of water. He looked as if he had been there some time and he spoke to his reflection.

“Oh my love, I hate this barrier between us, how I long to kiss your lips. How I wish you would talk to me.”

“Talk to me.” replied Echo.

“You speak! Finally you speak to me! Oh how I have waited for this moment, to ask do you love me?”

“Do you love me?”

“Oh yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I love you!”

“I love you.” she replied.

“Then answer me this one question and I will happily live here forever, but if you should not I would sooner die than stay here.”

“Stay here!”

“Oh I will, but I must say this quietly, I may have to come closer.”

“Come closer.” said Echo.

The young man bent over the pool and bowed down until his lips kissed the waters. There he whispered his question, but it was so quiet that Echo could not hear it and could not reply. The man waited for an answer but when none came tears started to run down his cheeks.

“Is that your answer then? Can you not speak aloud the thing that I cannot?”

“I cannot.”

“Then I cannot live.” He pulled a dagger from his side and plunged the blade in deeply. Blood welled up around his mouth and he collapsed at the side of the pool.

“Live!” cried Echo, but it was too late. The handsome man was dead, his curse played out. Echo left the forest again vowing not to return. She would stay in the canyons and the caves, and perhaps the vaulted chambers of the cities. But never again would she speak in the woods, and a whisper would always bring a tear to her eye.


The Dark Side Of Myth

15 March, 2008

masks2After the fall of Mycenaean civilisation there was a dark age across Greece. The writing that was used in the great Palaces of Mycenae and Pylos disappeared from the archaeological record, never to return. Oral tradition and bardic entertainers kept the stories of this heroic age in the minds of the Greeks. The fall of Troy, the interactions of the gods, all were spoken of, none were written. After hundreds of years spent in this ‘dark age’ writing once again came to Greece. This time is was based on the Phoenician alphabet and it would last until the present day. Now the stories of the bards were committed to tablets, written down and stored.

The most famous of these were the Iliad and the Odyssey, telling stories set around the Trojan War. At the same time the Theogony was written, a poem describing the origins of the gods. These tales were full of descriptions of how to serve the gods, and how a hero should act. The Theogony explained why it was that when an animal was sacrificed, the humans got the best parts of the animal and the worst parts were burned in offering to the gods. There was no sacred text book as a foundation for the religion of the Greeks, but these books served a similar purpose, showing how the religion was to be carried out.

The bardic tradition continued. The myths were told again and again, and with variations depending on the audience, or where the tale-teller was from. The myths were well known by everyone and could be used as a shorthand to reach deeper understandings. Around 500 BCE these myths were used in a new form of entertainment – the theatre. Dramas were written and performed at competitions in great festivals. The competition was fierce and the subject matter had to impact those watching. The playwrights used the ancient myths and turned them around to look at their dark side.

The story of Jason and his search for the Golden Fleece was well known. During his voyages he received help from Medea, a barbarian girl who fell in love with Jason. After saving his life many times he brought her back home with him. After that there are several different endings to the tale, but the Playwright Euripides told the version that became the most famous. On arriving back in Greece, Jason was offered the hand of a princess in marriage. Knowing that she would bring him great wealth he accepted the offer, much to the horror of Medea who by this time had borne Jason two sons. Using poison she killed the princess and her father the King. Then she went further and killed her own two sons before fleeing Jason leaving him with nothing. It is a dark tale and although the play is based upon the Jason myth there are no daring sword fights, no miraculous rescues by the gods, and no fantastical wonders. It is the other side of the myth, exploring different subjects than the earlier bards did.

Many of the plays were written as a sort of thought experiment. Just as a science fiction writer today will take an idea and extrapolate it to see what the world could be like, so too did the ancients take ideas and stretch them to breaking point. And as when people discuss crime and law today and someone comes up with a “but what would you do in this extreme case?” argument, so too did the ancient playwrights think about how the law and society would react given events that were stretched beyond the norm.

Agamemnon was a heroic figure in the Iliad. Headstrong, arrogant, but noble. After the war he was murdered by his wife. Her motives vary according to different versions of the tale. In some she was seeking vengeance for Agamemnon’s murder of their daughter. In others it was because he had brought back Cassandra from Troy as a concubine. In yet more it was because she was an adulteress and was fearful of being caught. In any case, it fell to Agamemnon’s son Orestes to avenge him. But what was he to do? If he avenged his father he would have to kill his mother. If he did nothing, then he would allow the murderer of his father to go free. He was stuck with an appalling choice.

Orestes chooses to avenge Agamemnon’s death, and in the plays of Aeschylus this whole story is told. It ends with the trial of Orestes for killing his mother, and here it is most clear that this is a thought experiment. It was a way of looking at the current issues that were facing the Athenians as they watched this play, but told through the common myths of their time. By using this shorthand, by basing the plot of their play on a well known story, the playwrights allowed themselves to explore many issues without losing their audience. In turn they have brought these dark stories into our own modern views of the originals. Just as the Romans incorporated the plays into any summaries of the ancient legends, so do we do the same today. An ancient look at the dark side of myth has left us with better rounded stories showing all sides of the human condition.