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Copyright © 2017 by Bill Hiatt
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Those portions of the book which are not mythological are fictional. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names of places and companies are either fictional or are used fictionally.
Created with Vellum
For every student who ever struggled to learn Greek mythology
Intended Audience for This Book
3. Wars among the Gods
4. Prometheus and Pandora
6. Zeus and Hera
18. Hades and Persephone
19. Deucalion and Pyrrha
20. Io and Her Family
21. Cadmus, His Family and His In-laws
22. Bellerophon and Perseus
23. Jason and the Argonauts
26. Heroes of the Trojan War, Part 1
27. Heroes of the Trojan War, Part 2
28. Heroes of the Trojan War, Part 3
29. The Culprit Revealed
Appendix A: Approach to Mythology Used in This Book
Appendix B: Adaptation of Ancient Sources
Appendix C: Genealogies
Appendix D: Roman Names
Appendix E: Sources, Suggestions for Further Study
About the Author
Other Books and Booklets by Bill Hiatt
I wrote this book for students learning Greek mythology in a specific course at a specific high school. If you are in that course, this book is for you! If you are a student at another school, please keep in mind that there are many different versions of most myths and that there are too many myths for any general survey to include them all. Consequently, the mythological content of this book will be somewhat different from your regular text. There is no harm in using this book as a supplement, but you should not try to use it as a replacement for your assigned reading.
If you are an adult who enjoys mythology and wants to learn more about it, you may also find this book useful. However, it is not intended to be a substitute for more scholarly treatments of the subject. (If you're curious about the way in which the book approaches mythology, you can find an explanation in Appendix A.)
If you are interested in finding additional mythology resources, be sure to look at the suggestions in Appendix E.
The last thing Keisha Henry could remember was being in a very long, very tedious study session for tomorrow’s mythology test. She had never fallen asleep in a study group before, but she must have this time because she was alone and surrounded by fog so thick she couldn’t see a thing through it. She had to be dreaming.
The fog didn’t bother her—except that it was cold, so cold she shivered. She couldn’t remember ever having a dream before in which she could feel something that intensely. For that matter, she couldn’t remember knowing she was dreaming while she was still asleep.
Wandering in the fog was boring at first but rapidly became unnerving. Keisha knew dreams were supposed to be shaped by the subconscious mind, and as incoherent as they seemed, they often had some psychological purpose. What could her subconscious possibly be trying to tell her with a bleak and unchanging landscape?
She hoped it wasn’t a suggestion that her life was going nowhere. There were days when she felt like that, times when she wondered if all the honors and AP classes, all the extracurricular activities, all the efforts to create a perfect transcript so she could get into the perfect college would really pay off. One of her sister’s friends had done everything right and still not gotten into the school of her choice. Another had gotten into Harvard and then been unhappy there.
Keisha tried not to obsess over the future, but there were days when she wondered whether she was making progress or just wandering in a figurative fog—much like the dream fog that now surrounded her.
Just when she thought she could no longer stand the monotony, she saw a flash of brownish red in the fog. That had to be the hair of Patrick O’Riley, one of the guys in the study group.
“Patrick!” she called. He was far from being her favorite person. Actually, he was pretty close to being her least favorite—but at this point, she would have hung out with her worst enemy in preference to being alone.
“Keisha?” he asked as he blundered in her direction. He had a big smile on his face when he finally emerged.
“It is you. I was beginning to think I was alone here. Where are we?”
Keisha was tempted to point out their surroundings were just something her subconscious dredged up, but what would be the point of telling a character in her dream that?
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything quite this unvarying before. Meeting you is the first break in the monotony I’ve had in what seems like hours.”
“Think the rest of the study group is here?” asked Patrick, looking around and squinting at the fog as if he would find a way to see through it.
“If you and I are, it’s a good bet they are, too,” replied Keisha. Since the subconscious often used recent memories as raw material, she wouldn’t be surprised to see more of the people she had been with when she fell asleep.
Sure enough, one by one her study buddies came staggering out of the fog: Yong Choi, Yasmin Sassani, Mateo Reyes, Fatima Hadad, and Thanos Logios.
At first, they were overjoyed to see each other, but that feeling only lasted until they remembered they still had no idea where they were or how they had gotten there.
“This has to be a dream,” muttered Yong, staring into the swirling fog.
Keisha was surprised again. She’d never before had a character in a dream allude to the fact that it was a dream. Perhaps getting very little sleep over several days was having more of an impact on her than she cared to admit.
“I’ve never had such a dream that felt so real,” said Fatima in her usual quiet voice.
“Real, maybe, but not realistic,” Mateo pointed out. “Endless fog? Where in the real world would you find something like that?”
“There’s no light source,” added Yasmin. “I mean, obviously there’s light, but where’s it coming from? It’s…it’s as if the fog itself is glowing.”
Then a long, mournful howl made all of them jump, even the usually stoic Yong. Keisha shivered again, but this time not from the cold.
Clearly, they were not alone.
They did not have to wonder too long what was sharing this foggy wilderness with them, because an enormous black wolf leaped out of the fog, fangs bared, eyes flashing. Everyone had the same reflex: turn and run. However, what were the odds any of them could outrun a wolf? Probably not much better than the odds of beating a wolf in a fight. Perhaps they could gang up on the wolf—but what if there were more wolves hiding in the fog?
“Phobetor!” shouted a stern voice from somewhere nearby. “Leave them alone!”
The wolf growled in the general direction from which the voice had come, but then, much to the students’ surprise, it turned and trotted away.
“That was…anticlimactic,” said Patrick. Keisha figured none of the guys were going to admit that they had been just as scared as the girls.
“Hello!” called Mateo. “Who’s out there?” Aside from a distant echo of his own voice, he got no answer.
“Great! We don’t have to worry about the wolf, just about a disembodied voice,” said Yong.
“I know where we are,” announced Thanos.
“Well,” prompted Yasmin. “Don’t keep us in suspense.”
“This is the land of dreams—Demos Oneiroi the Greeks called it—in the Underworld,” Thanos said, as if he were describing the weather.
“The what?” asked Patrick. “You mean, like the Greek mythological Underworld? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Because there are so many much more rational explanations for a never-ending fog bank populated by enormous wolves?” asked Mateo, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“It’s a dream, genius!” snapped Patrick. “Just like Yong said. Isn’t that obvious?”
Yong looked a little surprised. He and Patrick didn’t normally get along, let alone agree with each other.
“How can we all be having the same dream, though?” asked Yasmin. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“I’m dreaming, and the rest of you are just characters in my dream,” replied Patrick, echoing what Keisha had been thinking only minutes before. Hearing him say it made her question her original assumption, though. If all these people were conjured up by her subconscious, how could they act so exactly as they did in real life? She’d never had a dream experience with so much real-world detail.
“I’m not in your dream,” said Yasmin.
“You have been before,” said Patrick, flashing her his most mischievous grin. “You weren’t wearing quite as much, though.”
Fatima looked disgusted, and Mateo smacked Patrick in the arm. “Don’t be such a pig, man! Anyway, this is no time for flirting.”
“I wouldn’t call it flirting,” muttered Yasmin, still glaring at Patrick.
“Sorry,” said Patrick, raising his hands, though he didn’t sound that sorry. “I was just joking.”
“Getting back to the real question,” said Keisha loudly enough to get their attention, “something weird is happening. I’m not saying we’re really in the Underworld—”
“I just meant we were dreaming about being there, not that we were there,” Thanos said quickly.
Keisha shook her head impatiently. “Yeah, I knew that’s what you meant. So could we all be sharing a dream of the Underworld? Most scientists would say no, we couldn’t share the same dream, but there are a small number of cases in which mutual dreaming may have occurred. Before right now I would have said it was impossible, but it’s the explanation that best fits the facts.”
“How is such a thing possible?” asked Yong.
“I don’t know,” Keisha replied, playing with her hair as she spoke. “I’ve never liked the evidence for extrasensory perception, but hypothetically that might be the answer. We were all really close together when we dozed off. We were sitting around a table, right? And we were all thinking about the same thing. If a telepathic connection is possible at all, the conditions would have been good for it.”
Patrick snorted. “Seriously?”
“Perhaps a mutual dream would also be a more vivid one, because it’s generated by the minds of several people, not just one,” suggested Yong.
“Who cares? If this is a dream, I just want to wake up,” said Fatima. She looked a little panicked and sounded as if she were about to hyperventilate.
“In ancient times people believed that dreams were a message from the gods—” started Thanos.
“So now the Greek gods are real?” asked Patrick, looking as if he was readying another joke.
Thanos looked at him with obvious annoyance. “Of course not. But maybe someone who does exist is trying to tell us something.”
“That we should actually have read the material?” asked Mateo. He seemed to be trying hard not to laugh, but to Keisha it wasn’t funny. She had been irritated that only three of them had done all the reading.
She looked carefully at Thanos, who, whatever else could be said about him, had done the assigned reading—and considerably more. From his contributions to the study group, she could tell he had read everything about ancient Greece he could get his hands on, including many of the ancient Greek texts from which the myths came, though she had only realized how knowledgeable he was during the group meetings. Nobody else in the group had really known him that well before, either. All she really knew about him was that he was very good at math. Frankly, he had ended up in the group mostly because he was an exchange student from Greece, and some of the others had the stereotypic idea that he must, therefore, know about Greek mythology. Actually, Patrick had thought Greeks still worshiped the ancient gods, but Keisha tried hard not to think about that—it made her grind her teeth too much.
“Thanos, why do you think we’re here?” she asked finally.
“I wish I knew,” he replied. “If we’re here for a reason, though, we should find out what it is, right?”
“What makes you think this is the Underworld?” asked Yong. “I don’t remember anything in the book about the Underworld being filled with fog.”
“The descriptions in ancient texts vary,” Thanos replied, “and the Underworld wasn’t described as being necessarily the same throughout. That the land of dreams could be all foggy makes a certain amount of sense. What got me thinking this was the Demos Oneiroi, though, is that Phobetor is the name of the god of nightmares. He often assumes the form of animals—and the voice called the wolf Phobetor.”
“Under that theory, whose voice did we hear?” asked Yong.
“Morpheus, the god of dreams,” answered Thanos as if it was obvious. “He’d be the one in charge here.”
“I don’t remember that part at all,” said Fatima, sounding less panicked than before but still a little worried. Dream or no dream, the test was still tomorrow, and the idea of sleeping through their review time seemed to be getting on her nerves.
“Morpheus and Phobetor were two of the children of Hypnos, god of sleep,” Thanos explained. “There were others as well, called Oneiroi, who together were responsible for all dreams. They entered the mortal world through two gates. False dreams entered through the gate of ivory, while true ones, particularly those inspired by the gods, entered through the gate of horn.”
“I’m reminded of how much I need to review,” said Fatima. “I really need to wake up.” She still spoke softly, but much more emphatically than usual.
“I’ve been trying to wake up for several minutes,” said Yong. “I just can’t. I don’t think it’s that easy. If it were, being charged by the wolf would have caused at least some of us to wake up.”
“We need to figure out why we’re here,” said Thanos with a certainty that baffled Keisha. How could he possibly know that?
“We need to understand what whoever put us here wants us to know,” he continued. “Then we’ll wake up.”
“How do we do that?” asked Yasmin, waving her hand at the fog. “There’s nothing here. How do we learn anything from this dismal place?”
As is she had conjured it up, a black swirl formed in the fog, becoming larger and larger until it was an enormous doorway. No, not exactly a doorway. Yong investigated a little and discovered there was some kind of barrier, smooth as glass, that prevented anyone from walking through.
It was a window! But a window looking out on what?
Thanos, still Mr. Certainty, pointed at the enormous window, through which they could now see only darkness, but with something moving through it, like an image barely glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye.
“There. We will find the answers there.”
“What are we looking at?” Mateo asked Thanos. Keisha prided herself on being well read, but she had to admit Thanos was probably the most likely to know the answer in this case.
Thanos stared for a minute at the blur they could see through the window, a fuzziness so indistinct it made their eyes hurt to look at it. Though no light came from it, it somehow stood out against the surrounding darkness “In the beginning was Chaos.”
“I thought Chaos was a jumble of matter and energy,” said Yong, squinting at the blur.
“Later Roman writers like Ovid describe it that way, but early Greeks like Hesiod portray something more like what we’re seeing. Chaos originally meant chasm or void rather than confusion,” Thanos replied. “That’s why it’s so hard for us to look at—you can’t really see a void.”
“There are other things out there,” said Fatima, pointing at the window. “Unless I’m imagining them. It’s so hard to tell.”
“No, you’re right,” said Thanos. “That’s Gaia, the Earth.” He pointed to a large mass, gray and lifeless. “That one’s Tartarus.” He indicated a huge, dark pit, hard to see against the surrounding blackness. “Those two are Nyx and Erebus, night and darkness personified.” He waved his right hand in the general direction of two black masses, even harder to see than Tartarus.
“I must not have gotten this far in the book,” said Patrick, scratching his head.
“The creation story was in one of the first chapters,” said Mateo. Patrick ignored him.
A sudden flash caught them by surprise. It was so bright, especially in contrast to the preceding darkness, that it momentarily blinded them.
“Was that the sun being born?” asked Yasmin.
“No,” said Thanos, when their eyes had begun to recover. “Look more closely.”
For the first time, they could see a human figure. Well, sort of human, anyway. He was the most handsome guy Keisha had ever seen, and she could tell from the expressions on the other girls’ faces that they would not have argued the point. Of course, anyone would probably have looked good compared to chaos, darkness, and bottomless pits. Still, this newcomer drew her eyes like boy band concerts drew preteen girls.
“That’s Eros,” said Thanos, breaking the awkward silence. “You know, love,” he added in response to Patrick’s puzzled expression.
“Like Cupid?” asked Patrick.
“That’s the Roman name,” Yong pointed out.
“But I thought Cupid was a little baby,” Patrick said, scratching his head again.
Thanos smiled a little. “Eros was always portrayed as what we would think of as a teenager in early myths and art, I guess because that’s the age people tend to experience romantic love for the first time. It wasn’t until later that he was pictured as a baby, to show the irrationality of love.”
Keisha, usually a very attentive student, missed most of Thanos’s explanation, as did Yasmin and Fatima, each of whom looked as if she was thinking about being held tightly in Eros’s arms.
Thanos snickered and said something like, “fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men.” Keisha realized he was quoting the Greek poet, Hesiod—and that he had caught the girls with their eyes riveted to Eros.
“Everything is…different,” said Yasmin, perhaps trying to cover her embarrassment.
“Love changes everything,” said Thanos.
The glowing Eros was now echoed by light from other sources.
“Erebus and Nyx just became the parents of Aether (the upper air) and Hemera (day),” Thanos said, pointing to something like a sunrise, but without the sun.
“Still no light sources,” said Yasmin.
“Not very scientific,” said Yong, scowling a little. “Light just comes from nowhere.”
“Light comes from love,” suggested Thanos. “Early Greeks didn’t make much distinction between the physical and the spiritual. Later Greeks often used the physical to represent the spiritual.”
“Earth is different now,” said Mateo.
Sure enough, the Earth, which had been gray only moments before, was now green, and above it hung a recognizable sky, dotted with stars.
“Gaia brought forth Uranus, the sky,” explained Thanos.
“Not mine,” said Patrick. “That must be your…”
“Grow up!” snapped Yong. Patrick frowned at him and clenched his fists, but Mateo moved between them—a not very subtle hint to Patrick to leave Yong alone.
“Just as Mother Earth brought forth Father Sky, she also brought forth Pontus, the sea,” added Thanos quickly, being careful not to say Uranus again, just in case. Looking more closely, Keisha noticed the shimmering water forming on part of the earth’s surface.
“Then earth and sky made love, and from their union came many children, including the Titans,” Thanos continued.
As if on cue, the view through the window shifted, so that the earth was much closer, and upon the green surface they could now see a group of godlike beings.
“The most important of the early Titans were Cronus and Rhea, who married and became the parents of the first Olympian gods,” said Thanos. He pointed to a female Titan who looked somehow comforting and maternal—hardly a match for the male Titan standing next to her, handsome but hard-featured. Rhea looked like someone you might want to have for a mother, but Cronus was far from being anyone’s ideal father.
“But weren’t they brother and sister?” asked Mateo. “The ancient Greek believed in incest?”
“Not among people,” said Keisha. “Like every other society, they had a strong incest taboo. However, early Greeks viewed the gods as being above human morality. Remember that the Greeks didn’t understand genetics and had no idea what consequences inbreeding would have.”
“Cronus and Rhea weren’t the only brother-sister marriage, either,” said Thanos. “Hyperion and Theia married and became the parents of Eos, the dawn; Helios, the sun; and Selene, the moon.”
“Light sources—finally!” said Yong.
For a while, they watched the radiant Helios and Selene alternately driving their chariots across the sky while Eos glowed rosily on the eastern horizon.
“The ancient Greeks thought the world was flat?” asked Fatima.
“Yeah, most ancient people did in the beginning,” Keisha replied.
They had already seen water on part of the earth’s surface as Pontus had come forth, but now they also noticed water completely encircling the earth.
“That’s Oceanus, another Titan,” said Thanos. “He married his sister, Tethys, and they fathered the Oceanids, nymphs of the outer sea, as well as the Potamoi, river gods.”
“So they had a god of the sea and a god of the ocean?” asked Yasmin. “That seems weird.”
“Early Greeks probably thought of Pontus as being the Mediterranean Sea and Oceanus as being the larger body of water they had heard was beyond the Straits of Gibraltar—what we would think of as the Atlantic Ocean,” Thanos explained. “Originally, those were the only two large bodies of water they knew about.”
“There are a lot of other overlaps like that in Greek mythology,” Keisha said. Some scholars think the early Greeks were a combination of many smaller groups. Each group had its own gods and goddesses, and when the groups came together, some duplicates may have been merged, but others were left as separate gods, even though they represented the same thing or had the same function.
“It’s also possible that the same god might have been known by different names in different places, and over time people began to treat each name as a separate being.”
“Boring!” announced Patrick after faking a very loud yawn. “Boring, and probably not on the test.”
“Another Titan brother-sister combination was Coeus and Phoebe,” said Thanos, probably figuring the best way to deal with Patrick might be to ignore him. “They became the parents of Asteria, goddess of falling stars, or comets, as we would say; and Leto, who later became the mother of Apollo and Artemis.”
“Iapetus, however, did not marry his sister,” continued Thanos.
“Well, it’s nice someone didn’t,” said Mateo.
“He married Clymene, an Oceanid and therefore his niece, though,” Thanos pointed out. “Their children were Atlas, Prometheus, and Epimetheus, names that will probably sound familiar.”
“Nope!” said Patrick, though he was looking more and more worried as the flood of names kept coming.
Keisha was happy her reading enabled her to distinguish those siblings by their looks. Atlas was bulging with muscle but had a vacant expression on his face—a little like Patrick, actually. Prometheus looked thoughtful as he stared off into the distance. Epimetheus, by contrast, didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what was happening around him, foreshadowing the trouble Keisha knew he would get into later.
“Crius married Eurybia, a daughter of Gaia and Pontus, and they became the parents of Perses, the destroyer; Pallas, Titan of warcraft; and Astraeus, the Titan of dusk and balance for Eos, the dawn.”
“I wish I had something to take notes on,” said Fatima, looking around unhappily.
“It’s a dream,” Mateo pointed out. “It’s not as if you’ll have them when you wake up.”
Keisha was beginning to wonder how something so complicated could possibly be a dream, but she kept the doubts to herself.
“Are any of those last guys really important?” asked Patrick impatiently.
Thanos sighed. “We know them mostly because of their children. Perses married Asteria, his cousin, and they became the parents of Hecate.”
“Never heard of her,” said Patrick.
Keisha and Yong shared disgusted glances, but both refrained from saying what they were thinking.
“She was a versatile goddess, one who had power in the sky, on the earth, and in the sea,” Thanos explained. “No one knows why she was so powerful, but later, when Zeus took over, she was the only Titan to retain all of her earlier authority.
“No one knows why her reputation changed, either, but slowly she became a goddess of the dark phase of the moon, of witchcraft and of evil. Instead of being revered, she was feared by all.
“Pallas had a more varied group of kids. He married Styx, nymph of one of the Underworld rivers, and became the father of Zelus (glory), Nike (victory), Cratus (strength), and Bia (force). Astraeus, the dusk, married Eos, the dawn, and they became the parents of the four winds, as well as the stars and planets the ancient Greeks knew about. The planets were named after other gods, but they were also gods themselves.”
“That’s hardly confusing at all,” said Mateo.
“It’s no different from anything else about Greek mythology,” muttered Patrick.
“Some of the Titan women don’t seem to have husbands,” said Fatima.
“Some of the brothers married someone other than a sister,” said Yong. “I wonder if the ones left over were lonely.”
“Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, seemed content to study, but she was not alone forever,” Thanos explained. “Eventually Zeus made her the mother of the nine Muses, for all the arts and sciences ultimately depended on memory.”
“Zeus was a total player,” said Patrick, actually right for once.
“Themis, the personification of divine order and law, was likewise eventually loved by Zeus and became the mother of the Horae, or seasons.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” objected Mateo.
“It doesn’t have to make sense; it’s mythology,” said Patrick gloomily.
“Why would an abstraction give birth to an aspect of nature like that? Wouldn’t it make more sense if Gaia had given birth to the seasons?” Mateo asked.
“Perhaps the original storytellers were thinking about the fact that the seasons were part of the natural order,” suggested Yong. “They might not have been making the same kind of distinction between nature and human society we would.”
“Some stories also make the Morae (Fates), children of Zeus and Themis, again a blend of the natural—life and death—with the overall order of the universe,” Thanos continued. “However, different storytellers made different associations, and in their view, the Fates were among the gloomy children of Nyx, I suppose because of how much people fear death.”
“Night and Darkness had a lot of kids?” asked Mateo. “I wouldn’t have expected them to be thought of as sources of life.”
“A lot of people have sex in the dark,” Patrick said. Keisha didn’t admit it out loud, but that wasn’t a completely stupid idea about how early people might have thought about darkness. Maybe Patrick wouldn’t be completely hopeless—if he actually did his work.
“So who else did Nyx and Erebus give birth to?” asked Yasmin.
“Actually, Nyx by herself,” replied Thanos. “Nemesis, the grim goddess of retribution; Moros (doom); Ker (destruction); the Keres (goddesses of violent death) Thanatos (death in general when he’s by himself, but peaceful death when he appears with the Keres); Momus (blame); Oziys (pain); Apate (deceit); Geras (old age); and, worst of all, Eris (discord), the opposite of Eros. Eros brings together, but Eris pulls apart.”
“But you said earlier that Erebus and Nyx were the parents of Aether and Day, both positive,” said Yong.
“It’s true that their children are a little more of a mixed bag,” agreed Thanos. “Hidden away in the grim mob are also the Hesperides (nymphs of sunset); Hypnos (sleep, and our current host); and Philotes (friendship).”
“I don’t get it,” said Mateo. “There’s no logic to that at all. Why would they have such different children?”
Thanos shrugged. “Haven’t you ever seen siblings who were different from each other? I think you may be confusing the Greek concept with later religions that had a tendency to split everything into good and evil. Think about Christianity, for example, with the clear line between God and Satan, angels and demons. In early Greek thinking, there is no such split. Day and night don’t represent good and evil. Even death isn’t evil exactly; it just is. Remember that ancient Greeks had no devil.
Fatima shuddered and took a step back from the window. “Something weird is happening,” she whispered. “I…I feel it.”
Thanos squinted at the window, which had darkened noticeably. “The early gods and Titans lived together peacefully for a while, but eventually conflicts developed.”
“How could that be, since they were all one family?” asked Mateo.
“Family members sometimes have fights,” Keisha pointed out.
“Hopefully, not as bad as these, though,” said Thanos. “These led to murder—and to war.”
“Finally, we’re getting to the good part!” said Patrick. “At last they’ll be some gore!”
Fatima shuddered again, harder this time.
“Why would gods fight against other gods?” asked Yasmin, staring into the growing darkness. “You were just saying the Greeks didn’t make a sharp division between good and evil the way a lot of modern religions do. What did they have to fight over?”
“The same things people have to fight over,” Thanos replied. “Remember that the Greeks, like most ancient people, didn’t conceive of the kind of infinite God that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam visualize. Instead, their gods were anthropomorphic.”
“Anthropowhatic?” asked Patrick.
“Human in form,” said Keisha tiredly. “They had greater abilities than humans, but they also had human flaws.”
“So what was the fight about?” asked Mateo.
“Cronus hated his father. I don’t think the myths ever explain why,” replied Keisha.
“He was kind of like a rebellious teenager—only in a very dysfunctional family,” said Yong. “Instead of just acting out, he turned to violence.”
“He went Menendez brothers on his father?” asked Patrick, suddenly more interested.
“He had more motivation that just anger at his father, though,” Thanos pointed out. “His mother, Gaia, was angry because Uranus had imprisoned some of her children.”
“He kept his own children captive?” asked Fatima, sounding as if she couldn’t believe it.
“Yeah,” answered Thanos, “but only the ones that weren’t physically perfect in his judgment. That meant the Cyclopes, because they had only one eye in the center of their forehead, and the Hecatoncheires, because each one had one hundred arms and fifty heads.”
“So he had a bias against people with disabilities?” asked Fatima, even more incredulous than before. “And…and they were his own children?”
“The ultimate dysfunctional family,” said Mateo.
“The really odd thing is that Uranus felt that way even though the children who disappointed him were actually better than average in everything except appearance. The Cyclopes were very clever and good with their hands when given half a chance, and the Hecatoncheires were mighty warriors. Hesiod says they were the ‘most terrible’—in other words, the fiercest in battle.
“Anyway, Gaia, who always seemed to love her children, turned to Cronus for help. Since he hated his father anyway, he was more than willing.”
“I can’t see what’s happening anymore,” said Yasmin. Their window had gone completely black, darker even than the primal emptiness before the emergence of Eros. Not only that, but the ground shook beneath their feet.
“Earthquake?” asked Patrick, looking around worriedly.
“More like a dreamquake,” replied Yong, though he too looked a little anxious.
“Perhaps Gaia trembled at Cronus’s horrendous attack on his father, even though she put him up to it,” suggested Thanos.
At that moment they heard a scream so loud that the surface of their window cracked a little. Several seconds passed before anyone could move.
“What was that?” Fatima finally managed to ask.
“Cronus must have just attacked Uranus,” replied Thanos. He used a stone sickle his mother had given him to castrate his own father.
“What’s castrate?” asked Patrick.
“Trust me, man, you so do not want to know,” said Mateo.
“It’s a kind of mutilation that renders a man incapable of having sex,” said Keisha, trying to be clinical, though she had to admit she enjoyed Patrick’s wince just a little.
They heard no more screams, though the ground continued to vibrate under their feet, a bit unnerving for people who grew up in California.
“Strangely, Cronus’s violence brought forth new life,” said Thanos, though even he sounded a little shaky. “Where his blood fell on the ground, the Erinyes, or Furies, were born—fitting, since they punished certain crimes against family members.”
By now the darkness had cleared, and they could watch the grim Erinyes marching around, their eyes constantly searching for a crime to punish. Those eyes had no pity in them, and their faces had no more humanity than those of statues.
“Giants also came from the blood of Uranus,” Thanos mentioned, and sure enough, they actually saw enormous drops of blood strike the earth. Then the gory ground exploded, and when the dust cleared, they could see an army of fully armored giants, each with a spear as long as the tallest tree.
“The giants, born from violence and blood, naturally loved war,” continued Thanos, “and eventually they fought against the gods themselves. However, the blood of Uranus also created the Meliae, nymphs of the ash tree.”
Coming forth more gently than the giants had, the nymphs, every bit as beautiful as the Erinyes were frightening, rose and sought out the trees they would claim as their own.
“Something’s happening over there, in the sea,” said Mateo, pointing at a large glob of foam.
“The flesh of Uranus—the part Cronus removed—the conquering Titan threw into the sea, and over time, Aphrodite, goddess of love, was born.
Keisha had to snicker. She and other girls had embarrassed themselves by getting hot and bothered over Eros, but now it was the guys’ turn. As Aphrodite emerged from the sea foam, looking even more lovely than Botticelli had painted her, the guys’ eyes focused unblinkingly at the window. Keisha was sure if she took their pulses, they would be racing faster than horses in the Kentucky Derby.
“Isn’t Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus?” asked Yasmin.
Figuring Thanos was not going to answer, Keisha said, “That’s one of the spots where the myths are inconsistent. Hesiod tells the story we’ve just seen, but there are other origin stories which make Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus and Dione, one of the daughters of Oceanus. The same thing happened with Eros. Hesiod has him as one of the primal forces emerging from chaos, while later stories make him the son of Aphrodite, with the father sometimes being Zeus and sometimes Ares.”
“Why aren’t they more consistent?” asked Yasmin.
“I’d guess it could have something to do with the differences among the groups that eventually formed Greek society, as we discussed earlier. It could also be that, because transportation and communication were much slower than they are today, people who lived some distance apart had less contact and might more easily develop different stories. Some scholars believe ancient people may not have cared much about the details, anyway, at least not enough to try to standardize the tales.”
“The rule of Cronus is another example,” said Thanos. He and the other guys had unglued themselves from the window, so Keisha figured Aphrodite must be offstage for the moment.
“Some writers describe the time he and Rhea were king and queen of the gods as a golden age of peace and prosperity. It’s hard to visualize Cronus as a good ruler, though, because in some ways he seems even worse than Uranus.
“How so?” asked Mateo.
“First, Cronus betrayed his mother by keeping the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires imprisoned. Even worse, though, Uranus had cursed Cronus for attacking him, and Gaia predicted that Cronus would be overthrown by his own son just as Cronus had overthrown his own father. Rather than risk that, Cronus took his children from Rhea as they were born and ate them.”
“He was a cannibal?” asked Mateo, clearly shocked. “And he ate his own children?”
“Sort of,” said Thanos. “As it turns out, he didn’t actually digest them, perhaps because they were immortal. Essentially, he kept them prisoner in his stomach.”
“Except for the fact that his victims didn’t die, he was basically a serial killer. So, yeah, how he could have ruled over a golden age I don’t know,” added Yong.
“If he wasn’t technically a serial killer, he was definitely a serial child abuser,” said Yasmin. “And he did it all just to keep power.”
“I’m guessing that didn’t sit well with the women,” said Mateo.
“That’s right,” said Keisha, though she thought that if he’d done the reading, he wouldn’t need to guess. “Rhea was constantly grieving for her swallowed children, and Gaia remained angry over her children that Cronus had left imprisoned. When Rhea came for help to Gaia and Uranus, who wasn’t exactly a member of the Cronus fan club either, they were willing enough to aid their daughter. They devised a plan in which Rhea gave birth to her next child, Zeus, on Crete, and Gaia took care of him and hid him away underground until he had time to grow up. Meanwhile, Rhea gave Cronus a stone wrapped up like a baby, and the distracted Titan swallowed it without realizing it wasn’t really a child.”
“Not very observant of him,” said Mateo.
“The ancient Greeks weren’t always interested in details like that, but I would bet Rhea was clever about presenting the stone,” said Thanos. “Much later, when Zeus was grown and ready, Rhea and Gaia somehow got Cronus to vomit up his other children (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia) who then escaped while their father was recovering and naturally joined Zeus. Zeus had other allies as well, because he released the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes from prison. The Hecatoncheires were formidable fighters, and the Cyclopes, who were great craftsmen, fashioned weapons appropriate for such an important battle. For Zeus they made his signature thunderbolts that could destroy anything they hit. For Poseidon they made a trident that could create earthquakes when it struck the earth or tidal waves when it struck the ocean. For Hades they made a vaguely described weapon, perhaps a kind of staff, which could also shake the earth and which had a touch deadly to any living thing—and probably at least painful to an immortal.”
Hearing the rumbling of distant thunder, they gathered around the window to watch the battle, which Thanos told them was called the Titanomachy. Cronus and some of the Titans fought fiercely against the younger gods, but even their best efforts failed. Thunderbolts crackled from Zeus’s hands one by one in rapid succession, searing the Titans and keeping them from getting close enough to fight the children of Cronus hand to hand. The earth shook as Poseidon and Hades struck it again and again, making the very ground beneath the Titans’ feet unreliable and opening chasms that led to the Underworld itself. With Cronus and his allies so thoroughly battered, they were easy prey for the Hecatoncheires, and for Zeus’s siblings. Once the Titans had been subdued, most of them were hurled by Zeus straight down to Tartarus, which became their prison, guarded by the very Hecatoncheires Cronus had kept as prisoners for so long.
“Was there peace then?” asked Fatima.
“Eventually,” said Thanos, “but the gods had one more challenge first. Look!”
What Thanos was pointing at was not hard to see. It was a monster of some kind, a giant, but with the heads of a hundred serpents growing from his shoulders, each breathing fire like a dragon, and each uttering a different kind of animal cry.
“Where did that…that thing come from?” asked Mateo, looking glad that they were a safe distance away from it.
“Gaia was still not satisfied, for though Zeus had freed her children whom Cronus imprisoned, he had now imprisoned the Titans.”
“Who seem as if they deserved it,” Yasmin pointed out.
“I guess we could say Gaia wanted all her children free regardless of what they had done,” Thanos replied. “Through Tartarus she became mother to Typhoeus, the monster you see advancing on Olympus.”
“How did she have sex with a pit?” asked Patrick. “That is what Tartarus is, right?”
Keisha tried to conceal her shock that Patrick had actually been listening. “The Greeks must have assumed that even the abstract gods or those who represented geographical features also had human forms to use—or maybe they just didn’t think it through.”
“Zeus is coming down to face him…but why is he alone?” asked Yasmin.
“Typhoeus frightened the others away,” suggested Thanos. “Don’t worry, though. Some time had passed since the war with the Titans, and Zeus was much surer of his power.”
Typhoeus took an incredible amount of damage and stayed on his feet. However, by the time the scent of burning flesh filled the air like a cloud around him, and all of the hundred heads had burned away, he could fight no longer. He finally fell with a crash so loud the crack in the window was joined by several others, and the ground beneath the students’ feet shook again, even more violently than before.
Zeus threw what was left of Typhoeus into Tartarus and looked around, surveying the damage. The long battle had bathed the earth in fire and lightning, scorching a great part of it and boiling away most of the sea. Standing in the middle of the devastation, the king of the gods looked smaller than he had before.
“Is Gaia going to lay off now?” asked Mateo. “Will there be peace?”
Thanos nodded. “Long enough for earth and sea to heal, but this was not the last major challenge Zeus had to face.
“You see, Zeus himself was destined to be overthrown.”
“Wait, you mean Zeus gets overthrown too?” asked Yasmin.
“Not in any surviving myth,” Keisha replied. “The Greeks assumed the overthrow of Zeus would happen at some point in the future. However, he lived under the threat of overthrow, never knowing when it would happen or who would be involved.”
“Well, he did have one clue,” said Thanos. “He knew he would be overthrown by his own son.”
“That makes sense,” said Yong. “After all, he overthrew his father, and his father overthrew his grandfather.”
“Zeus had a lot of sons, though, didn’t he?” asked Mateo. “Oh, that’s why he doesn’t know who will bring him down.”
“Exactly,” agreed Keisha. “Well, at least he didn’t try to eat all his sons like Cronus did.”
“By all accounts, he was a better ruler, and many stories comment on his justice and wisdom,” said Thanos.
“His wisdom sometimes took a back seat, though,” Yong pointed out. “That’s how he had so many sons; if he saw a beautiful goddess or even a mortal woman, he seems to have been unable to avoid having sex with her.”
“He was a guy,” said Patrick, as if all guys had sex with everyone in sight.
“Womanizing aside, he generally seemed to govern well,” Thanos pointed out. “There was, however, one glaring exception in which he sounded a lot more like Cronus than himself: Prometheus.”
“Prometheus was one of the second-generation Titans, right?” asked Mateo.
“Yes,” said Keisha, “and because he was one of the gods who could foretell the future, he knew that Zeus would win and sided with him in the war between Zeus and Cronus.
“The problem was that Prometheus, who in some stories created the human race, disagreed with Zeus on how humans should be treated. Zeus wanted a larger portion of the sacrificial animals to be given to the gods than Prometheus thought was reasonable, so Prometheus met with Zeus at Mecone and offered a compromise that was really a trick involving two piles of ox meat that were not what they seemed.
“First, Prometheus took the animal’s bones and wrapped them in fat. Keep in mind ancient people didn’t know about the health risks of fat. To them it was the best part of the meat, so when Zeus saw the white fat glistening in the sun, it would have been appealing to him.
“Next, Prometheus took the ox’s stomach and stuffed all remaining meat into it. When he offered Zeus a choice, the king of the gods momentarily forgot his wisdom and quickly picked the fat, which in fact had nothing edible within it, rather than the meat-filled stomach.”
“I bet Zeus wasn’t happy when he realized the truth,” said Mateo.
“No, he was furious,” replied Thanos. “However, having already made his decision final, he couldn’t go back on it. Instead, he took his wrath out on human beings, refusing to give them fire. Prometheus, once again coming to the aid of the humans, stole fire and gave it to them despite Zeus’s command.
“Zeus was so enraged by Prometheus’s continued defiance that he punished him horribly.”
“Like Cronus did with his father?” asked Patrick, unconsciously crossing his legs.
“No,” said Thanos, “but in this case the punishment might have been even worse, because it was meant to last forever. Zeus ordered that Prometheus be chained to a mountain in the Caucasus. Then Zeus sent an eagle down to devour Prometheus’s liver. The enormous bird ate it completely every day, but Prometheus, being immortal, didn’t die. Instead, his liver grew back every night so that the eagle could eat it again the next day.”
“Zeus sounds like a total psycho,” said Yasmin. “Why do we have to read this stuff?”
“It’s true that by modern standards, what Zeus is portrayed as doing was terrible,” said Yong. “However, you have to keep in mind that a lot of these stories developed during very primitive times in a society whose morality was considerably different from our own. Hesiod can tell this story but still say that Zeus has everlasting wisdom.”
“Put yourself in the place of a king in primitive times,” suggested Keisha. “After all, kings and their war leaders were the first audience for a lot of Greek literature, like the epic poems of Homer. An ancient king would have little patience with someone who defied his orders; he would have seen that person as a danger to himself and to public order. The same king would be likely to see someone who defied the king of the gods as a threat to the whole universe.”
“I get that,” said Yasmin, “but that doesn’t answer my original question. Why do we have to read material that expresses all these primitive values?”
“That’s my question too,” added Patrick. Keisha doubted he’d ever have thought of that without Yasmin but decided against saying that.
“Even primitive stories can have a decent moral message,” Yong pointed out. “We can’t think of it just in terms of Zeus. Prometheus is a good example of someone being willing to take chances for others, a real hero. He suffers for his choice, but in no version of the story does he seem to regret making it. His example could inspire people to care more about others.
“Anyway, the fact that you read a piece of literature doesn’t mean you need to agree with its values. Questioning ideas you don’t agree with is an important part of developing your analytical thinking ability.”
“Greek values also evolved as time went on,” Thanos said. “Hesiod may side with Zeus—though even Hesiod refers to Prometheus as kindly—but Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound tells the story from Prometheus’s point of view and makes clear that Zeus is behaving like a tyrant. That supports Yong’s point that the stories can be read in several different ways.”
“As time went on, the Greeks were more and more likely to regard the myths as symbolic,” said Keisha. “For example, because the name Cronus is very similar to the Greek word for time, some writers argued that Cronus devouring his children was symbolic of the way time devours us all.
“OK, so the stories aren’t necessarily intended to glorify serial killers and dictators,” said Fatima. “I’m still not sure why it’s so important to read them.”
“Cultural literacy,” said Yong. “The Bible is the single biggest influence on Western culture, but Greek literature is certainly the second biggest. We can see its influence in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream—”
“Boring!” announced Patrick. Keisha was surprised it had taken him that long.
“Well, I want to hear the rest of Yong’s answer to my question,” said Yasmin, glaring at Patrick. Somewhat to Keisha’s surprise, he scowled but said nothing else.
“Another of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet, is ultimately based on Pyramus and Thisbe, an ancient Greek story, and Hecate appears as a character in Macbeth. That’s only a few of the possible examples. There is a long list of other authors we could cite, including Dante, Ariosto, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Pope, Shaw, Joyce, Hawthorne, T.S. Eliot, Updike—”
“You weren’t kidding when you said the list was long!” said Patrick. “But what do a lot of dead guys have to do with us?”
“It’s not just dead guys,” Mateo protested. “I read all of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books when I was in middle school. They’re based on Greek mythology. Actually, if you look at modern fantasy books, many of them have a mythological basis.”
“Fantasy books?” Patrick asked with a sneer on his face. “So if I don’t read fantasy, it’s all irrelevant to my life.”
“How about astronomy?” asked Yong. “All the planets and moons in our solar system are named after Greek gods, though often using their Roman names.”
“There was a god named Moon?” asked Patrick.
“No,” said Yong, who seemed to be struggling not to make a joke at Patrick’s expense. “Sun and moon are English equivalents. That reminds me that our names for days of the week have roots in Greek mythology too, though in switching from Greek to Latin to Norse and Old English, a lot of those connections got buried. One day, though, is still pretty close to its Roman form: Saturday, which was once the Latin equivalent of Saturn’s day—Cronus’s day to the Greeks.”
“All kinds of other words come from mythology as well,” said Keisha. “Like erotic comes from Eros, aphrodisiac from Aphrodite—”
“What?” asked Patrick, suddenly more attentive.
“I thought that would get your attention,” she said with a smile. “Mythological words and phrases are spread all through our language. Narcissist—”
“What’s that?” asked Patrick. Keisha thought that he, of all people, should have known.
“It’s a term for someone who has too big an ego and gets wrapped up in himself or herself. Itcomes from Narcissus, a handsome guy who cared only about himself and was cruel to everyone else. The goddess Nemesis punished him by causing him to fall in love with his own reflection.
“A lot of other psychological terms come from Greek myths. For example, Oedipus complex, comes from Oedipus, king of Thebes. Phobia comes from Phobos, or fear, the son of Ares.
“Of course, the influence of myths isn’t confined to psychology, either. As I said earlier, it pops up all over the place. Adonis, a term for a handsome young man, comes from the name of one of Aphrodite’s lovers. Herculean, an adjective to describe some epically difficult feat—”
“OK, OK,” said Patrick. “A lot of words come from mythology. I get it.”
“We could also mention mythology’s opera, the visual arts,
architecture—” began Thanos.
“Let’s not and say we did,” said Patrick quickly.
“USC Trojans!” said Mateo happily. “What kind of shoes are you wearing, by the way?” he asked Patrick.
“Nikes,” said Patrick. “Oh—”
“Yeah, oh,” said Keisha, who was getting more tired of him by the minute. However, realizing his shoes were named after a Greek goddess caused Patrick to stop and think—or, if not actually think, at least keep his mouth shut for a while.
“OK,” said Yasmin. “Now I really get it. There are a lot of things I’ll miss in other literature and art—and game-show questions—if I don’t know mythology.”
“That’s about the size of it,” said Yong.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got a question about what we were talking about earlier,” said Fatima.
“Ask away,” said Thanos. “I think we’re done.”
“All right then, how could an ancient Greek have called the king of the gods a tyrant the way Aeschylus did?” she asked. “Wouldn’t he have been afraid of being struck by lightning or something?”
“There are different theories on that,” said Thanos. “A lot of myths are stories about people being punished for disrespecting the gods, so clearly the Greeks thought it could happen. Writers do seem to have believed they enjoyed a certain amount of latitude. Aristophanes and other writers of Greek comedy even made fun of the gods—except Poseidon. He was notoriously bad tempered, so they left him alone.
“When people are punished in the myths, it’s usually because they did something overt, like Erysichthon chopping down Demeter’s sacred grove or Actaeon accidentally seeing Artemis naked. Sometimes it’s also long-term, like Hippolytus getting on Aphrodite’s nerves by rejecting love and only worshiping Artemis. I guess the ancient Greeks probably believed the offense had to be serious or prolonged to merit the attention of the gods.”
“That makes sense,” said Fatima.
“To get back to our original story, the wrath of Zeus didn’t end with torturing Prometheus. The king of the gods also wanted to punish the human race, so he had the other gods create the first woman, Pandora,” said Thanos.
“The first woman was intended as a punishment for men?” asked Yasmin, frowning.
“Let me finish the story first. then you can tear it apart if you want.
“Prometheus had made the first men, but Zeus obviously couldn’t ask him, so he turned to Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, who molded Pandora from clay, making her a woman so beautiful even the gods were stunned by her.”
“How would he have known what a beautiful woman would look like if she was the first?” asked Mateo.
“He had the goddesses as models,” suggested Keisha.
“Probably,” agreed Thanos. “In any case, Hephaestus was not the only one who contributed to her development. Aphrodite gave her grace, to make her as alluring as possible. Athena taught her needlework, so she would seem useful outside the bedroom. Hermes gave her the power of speech, so she could communicate well, but he also gave her ‘a shameless mind and a deceitful nature,’ as Hesiod puts it.
“Beauty is only skin deep,” said Mateo. “Pandora was beautiful, but she wasn’t a good person.”
“Exactly,” said Thanos. “Zeus was ready to trick Prometheus’s brother, for whom Pandora was intended, in somewhat the same way Zeus had been tricked by Prometheus himself. Prometheus disguised the worse portion of the sacrifice to look more attractive. Zeus had the gods disguise a deceitful woman to be irresistible.
“Just to be sure, the beautiful woman was dressed magnificently. Athena gave her a gown the goddess had made herself. The Graces, attendants of Aphrodite, gave her a golden necklace. The Seasons crowned her with spring flowers. Then Pandora was ready for Epimetheus.”
“The poor guy never stood a chance,” said Yong.
Thanos nodded. “Prometheus had warned Epimetheus not to accept gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus was not much of a thinker and wanted the beautiful woman for his wife as soon as he saw her. Also, the fact that Hermes presented her to him as a gift from Zeus made it seem undiplomatic to refuse.
“Zeus had given Pandora a jar—”
“I thought it was a box,” interrupted Yasmin.
“It is in some later stories,” agreed Thanos, “but in the earliest version, it’s a jar. Anyway, the jar was supposed to be a wedding gift. However, when Pandora opened it, diseases and other kinds of evils flew out of it to plague the human race. Only hope, also trapped in the jar, remained behind. That last part could mean that humans were left without hope, which was trapped in the jar, or it could mean that hope was preserved to comfort humans later.”
“So it’s a question of whether the jar is half empty or half full,” said Yasmin, smiling.
“Yeah,” said Yong, “the pessimist would see this as a myth in which there is no hope, but the optimist would see it as an example of how hope can help us survive anything.”
“I read this myth as a little kid,” said Yasmin, “but the details were different. Pandora wasn’t deceitful, just curious. She was told not to open the box but did so anyway.”
“The myth probably existed in several different versions,” said Thanos. “As far as I know, though, the curiosity part doesn’t appear in any early Greek version. I think that was an attempt to give the story a different message. Hesiod used it to support the idea that there is no way to avoid the will of Zeus, but later on, especially after the rise of Christianity, when Zeus was no longer worshiped, someone probably wanted to give the tale a message more relevant to a different audience.”
“Yeah, societies often adapt literature to their changing needs,” said Yong. “I’ve seen some of the episodes of that ‘90s show, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys