Friday, November 25, 2011

Greek Myths

For a while now, I have wanted to tell you some of the stories from Greek mythology. Anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology, however, will have no trouble understanding why it's taken me this long. The original Greek myths were not fairy tales to entertain and amuse the masses or to lull children to sleep: They were warnings! They were horror stories! They were psycho-dramas designed to explain the inexplicable, predict the unimaginable and prepare for the unthinkable. The Greeks did not love and admire their gods; they feared them. And the myths are, for the most part, pretty horrific reads. People criticized Disney for what they did to the Greek myths in their movie, Hercules, but can you blame them?!?

I have found a few of the stories that are not as horrifying and present them to you today. I should note, that I intend, at some future date, to add the legend of Perseus to this collection, but for now, here are some short (mostly) sweet little stories. And I'd like to say "you're welcome" in advance to those of you who will soon be saying "thank you for not making an 'it's all Greek to me' joke."...oh, right. Never mind!

A long time ago, reliable sources inform me that the world was paradise. The sun shone constantly, the flowers were always in bloom, the world was green and beautiful all year round. And why? Because the world was in love. A beautiful girl, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, named Persephone, who was the most delicate and pure creature to ever live. Everyone and everything loved Persephone and wanted to be around her always…even Hades, the dark, cruel lord of the underworld. The God of Death himself had fallen in love with Persephone, so he captured her and took her down to his kingdom below. Of course, the world that loved her so, feeling she was gone for good, mourned the loss of their great love. The leaves fell off the trees, the flowers wilted, the air grew cold and the earth barren. Meanwhile, in the realm of Hades, his new bride was unhappy, and Hades had no idea why. She explained that she missed the world above and wanted to return, but Hades wanted to keep Persephone all to himself. In the end, they made a deal. Persephone was permitted to return to the world but only for half the year. The other half, she must spend with Hades in the underworld. She agreed and when she returned to the surface, the world blossomed again. And that is why half the year is bright, sunny and green and the other half is cold, dark and barren, when the world mourns for its lost goddess of spring.

This is the story of King Midas, and it’s all about…well, Midas…who’s a king...Duh. King Midas was a great, powerful, wealthy king who loved one thing above all else. Was it peace? Happiness? The prosperity and well-being of his subjects? Blueberry pie? No, of course not. It was gold! He loved gold, he was obssessed with gold, he had, let's face it, a very unhealthy attachment to gold. He knew he’d never get enough gold no matter how hard he tried. One day, while walking his garden and admiring the goldenrods, he saw what appeared to be the back end of a goat, trapped in a bush. Kindly, he pulled the creature out of the bush, only to find that, while the back end was that of a goat, the front end was a little man with goat horns and a little beard which centuries later would be called a “goatee,” and not long after that would be called “a stupid looking little beard.”

“Thank you for helping me, King Midas,” said the creature.

“What are you?” asked the king.

“I am a satyr. And because you have been kind to me, I shall do something for you. What do you desire more than anything else in the w—”


“You certainly answered fast. But, no matter. You shall have your gold. But be careful, your majesty: Too much of anything is not good for you.” But the king insisted that he wanted gold, so the satyr cast a magic spell on the king. “There,” he said. “Now that should be enough gold even for you.” And right before the king’s eys, the satyr vanished.

At first, King Midas was confused. He didn’t see any gold. What had the satyr meant? He turned around to go back inside when he stumbled and, to stop himself falling, grabbed the branch of a tree. When he was again upright, he looked at the tree and saw, to his amazement, that it was now made of solid gold! As were all the leaves and fruit in the tree. He plucked an apple and held it in his hand. Definitely gold. That’s when it hit him: The golden touch! Now he knew that anything he touched would turn to gold! He started touching everything in the garden, until all his flowers and tree were made of the purest, most perfect gold the world has ever seen. He cried out his thanks to the satyr and went inside his castle to touch things in there.

Furniture, bannisters, tapestries, ashtrays, books, clothing, dishes, anything he could get his hands on, King Midas turned to gold! Soon he was the richest king on earth, living in a golden palace. It was while he was thinking of what he could turn to gold next that the dinner gong rang. Making a note to turn the gong into gold after dinner, King Midas went to the dining hall, where his servants nervously served him a sumptuous meal. The king pulled in his chair, and it turned to gold. He picked up a napkin and it turned to gold. He picked up his fork and knife and they turned to gold. He picked up a chicken drumstick…and it turned to gold. Unfortunately, Midas didn't notice this until he had already taken a bite, or tried to. "OW!" he cried. He tried a wing, but it too turned to solid gold before he could get it to his mouth. He jabbed a piece of steak with his fork and as soon as he bit into it, as soon as his teeth touched it, it turned to gold. Now, horrorstruck, Midas began to grab wildly at all the food trying to find something he could eat. But all he did was turn the entire feast into gold!

King Midas ran back out to the now golden garden and cried out for the satyr, who appeared at his side. “Good evening, King Midas,” said the satyr. “How’s the golden touch working out for you?”

“Terrible!” moaned the king. “I am richer now than the gods, but what good is that if I starve to death? Please, take away the golden touch! I beg you! Set me free of this golden curse!”

“Well, I think you’ve learned your lesson,” said the satyr, and he cast another spell on the king before disappearing forever.

King Midas looked around and saw that everything he had turned to gold was now back to the way it was. The trees, the flowers, the fruit. He even plucked an apple from the tree. It did not turn to gold. He took a big bite out of it…and it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. And so, humbled, and having learned a valuable lesson about greed, King Midas ran back into his palace where he knew there was still a non-golden feast waiting for him.

Once upon a time, there was a great king named Orpheus. More than a king, he was a great musician. His singing and lute playing were the stuff of legend (case in point, this story you’re reading). He was the greatest singer, musician, and king the world had ever known. One day, while wandering through the woods of his domain, singing and playing, his music awoke a wood nymph, a magical creature of the forest, named Eurydice. She heard Orpheus’ singing and fell in love with him. They were married that very day. And so began a beautiful age of love and music for Orpheus, Eurydice and their people…until Eurydice was killed by a wild beast in the forest. Orpheus was distraught and thought he’d never sing another note as long as he lived. But, no! He wouldn’t give up! He knew where Eurydice was and, with great courage, he descended into the underworld to get back the soul of his beloved.

Of course, Hades refused to give her back no matter how much Orpheus begged and pleaded. So then, Orpheus turned his attention to Hades’ bride, Persephone, and appealed to her mercy and compassion. He even sang a song of his great love which moved Persephone to tears until she begged her husband to set Eurydice free. Hades agreed but, as usual, the God of Death plays by his own rules. Eurydice was brought forth and Orpheus was told that he could walk her out of the underworld this very day…but while he walked, she had to stay one step behind him at all times and would not say a word. Furthermore, if Orpheus looked back at her once, she would instantly return to the Pit and would belong to Hades forevermore. Orpheus agreed and turned to walk back to the world of the living. On the way, he couldn’t hear her footfalls and thought perhaps she wasn’t there. But he didn’t look back, for fear of losing her forever. He talked the whole way, desperately hoping for a sign. Finally, he was in sight of his goal. There was the gate that led to the surface…but, alas, he could resist no longer and looked over his shoulder. Eurydicie was gone, flown back to Hades, where she would remain forevermore. Orpheus returned to his kingdom and threw his lute on the fire. He never sang again.

Let’s be clear on something: Zeus is a jerk. An enormous jerk. Perhaps the biggest jerk of all time. He destroys things he doesn't like, seduces women in the most disturbing ways imaginable and when he has a gripe against somebody, he doesn't just punish them, he takes it out on their whole family! Case in point: Prometheus, who angered Zeus by bringing fire down from Olympus to give to mankind. Prometheus was punished in the most inhumane way possible (trust me, you don’t want to know), but that wasn’t enough for Zeus. He also wanted to punish Epimetheus, his brother. But rather than just torment him with giant birds for all eternity, as with Prometheus (see, I told you you didn’t want to know), he came up with a more sneaky plan for the brother. Epimetheus was lonely and unmarried, so Zeus had a wife made for him out of clay (an idea he picked up from some nut called Pygmalion). She was given life, the name “Pandora,” and a small box with a large, heavy lock. Zeus told Pandora that the box could never be opened, and gave the key to her new husband, Epimetheus. He assumed that Epimetheus, being a weak and stupid human, would eventually allow his curiosity would get the better of him and he’d open the box. But, as it turned out he was wrong…Pandora’s curiosity got the better of her, and she opened the box.

As soon as it was open, a stream of terrible things began to fly out of it and into the world. Hate, evil, fear, famine, pestilence, cruelty, disease, death, envy, avarice, lust, everything that makes life horrible flew out of that box like a bat out of Hades before Pandora was able to close it. She took it to her husband to beg his forgiveness for opening it when she realized it was not yet empty. She opened it again and something else flew out of the box: Hope. It thanked Pandora for setting him free and flew into the world, the world which now contained disease, evil, sin…and hope.

If You Liked My Stories, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Goddess of Spring (1934) A Disney Silly Symphony which turned the story of Persephone into sort of a melodrama operetta. An important early experiment for the studio in animating human beings convincingly, which they would shortly do on a grander scale in Snow White.
  • The Golden Touch (1935) Another Silly Symphony, this time about King Midas, though all the Greek elements have been removed. The only Silly Symphony directed by Walt Disney, and the last time he ever directed a cartoon.
  • Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Greek Myths (TV) This sort of "spin-off" of the show I've touted time and time again starred Michael Gambon as a new storyteller who tells about Icarus, Theseus and Orpheus, among other famous figures.
  • Muppet Classic Theatre (Video) In this version of the Midas story, Kermit is the king whose wife (Miss Piggy, of course) forces the Golden Touch on him, only to recant when he turns himself into gold!
  • Hercules (1997) This movie, as well as the subsequent TV show, took the good bits of Greek mythology, the basic plots of the myths, and rewrote them in a more palatable, family friendly way. In my opinion, this movie is better than the myths, if for no other reason than James Woods makes a great Hades. Contains brief references to Pandora and Orpheus. Also worth checking out, if you get the chance, is the TV series which expands the universe with characters like Icarus, Helen of Troy, Adonis and Cassandra and boasts some truly impressive guest stars.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Books, movies) This popular series of books by Rick Riordan tells of a modern day teen demigod and his adventures with the Greek gods of old. The film version of the first book features Steve Coogan as Hades and Rosario Dawson as Persephone.
  • "Doctor Who" (TV) The final episode of Season Five contains several references to Pandora's Box. I mention it here partly to show the impact Greek mythology has had on popular culture, but also because my mother loves Doctor Who and she's a regular reader. So, I guess...hi Mom!
NEXT WEEK: "Clever Gretel"

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