Io, is that You?



This photo is in honor of Io, the woman from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who was turned into a cow.  The Metamorphoses is the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s compendium of Greek and Roman myths.  All of these myths are linked together so that the poem tells the story of the world, from the creation to the then-present time of Roman Empire.  Linking each story is the process of transformation: people get transformed into animals; animals get transformed into stars, and so forth.

While Ovid was a brilliant writer, I find this poem rather painful to read at times because there is so much abuse of the humans by the gods.  In particular, the male gods (especially Jove/Jupiter) have a habit of lusting after female humans and raping them.  These women are then transformed (usually against their will) into another creature.

The myth of Io and Juno provides one example.  Io was a lovely young woman.  Jove had a “thing” for lovely young women and started pursuing her, literally.  Io most certainly was not interested in having sex with Jove, but he chased her “until she entered the shady groves of Lyrcea / And there, cloaked by a sudden thundercloud / Jove overcame her scruples and her flight.” (Book I, p 48).

As if being overtaken by a thunderbolt-wielding lust-crazed god wasn’t enough, there was more.  Jove’s wife Juno guessed what was going on between her husband and Io, and tried to stop them.  However, Jove realized Juno was coming, so he turned Io into a cow.  It’s as if he said, “Who me?  Raping a virgin?  I would never do that.  I’m just hanging out with this pretty little cow.”

So Io, who was just going about her business, not only get raped, but she also gets transformed into a cow in order to appease the angry wife.  How fair is that?  Unfortunately, Greek and Roman mythology is full of similar stories of male gods being entranced by human females, with the women usually having to pay a heavy price for being attractive.

We talk today about living in a rape culture.  I would remind readers that this culture is nothing new.  We only have to glance at classic literature to see it displayed full force.


“Love Hurts, Love Scars, Love Wounds and Mars”

Romantic love beckons to young girls, luring them in with promises of beautiful sunsets, rhapsodic violin melodies, and long romantic dinners.  Love, they believe, will solve all their problems, heal all their wounds, and make their thighs look thinner.

For romantic girls such as these, the goddess of love resembles a fairy godmother, Disney style.  American Girl Love Goddess is warm and benevolent, full of goodwill towards us mere humans.  She just wants to see everyone happily coupled with their soul mates.  She WILL eventually make all of us happy in love.

 The Fairy Godmother from Disney's "Cinderella"

The Fairy Godmother from Disney’s “Cinderella”

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew better.  The goddess of love they worshipped (called Aphrodite by the Greek and Venus by the Romans) was no warm and cuddly grandmother type.  She was a FORCE to be reckoned with.  She was someone to respect, someone to fear.

Roman copy of Greek statue of Aphrodite  by Callimachus
Roman copy of Greek statue of Aphrodite by Callimachus

 “Watch out, or I will smite you!”

 Hippolytus and Phaedra learned this the hard way.  Their stories, passed down by myth, were portrayed in Euripides’s tragedy Hippolytus, first performed in 428 B.C. in Athens.  Hippolytus was an upright young man, full of virtue.  He was so virtuous, in fact, that he did not pay the proper respect to Aphrodite.  He preferred to remain a virgin and devote most of his reverence to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt.  People warned Hippolytus that he was asking for trouble by ignoring Aphrodite and the force of eros she represented.  Hippolytus ignored their wise counsel.

He should have paid more heed.  Aphrodite did not take kindly to being ignored, and she decided to teach Hippolytus a lesson.  Unfortunately, Aphrodite took out her desire for vengeance on an innocent bystander: Phaedra.   Phaedra was married to Hippolytus’s father, Theseus.  She was living happily with Theseus until Aphrodite decided to smite her with overwhelming passion for her stepson.  Obviously, this put Phaedra in an untenable position.

Phaedra was in agony.  She could not bear to live without the object of her desire, and yet she could never reveal her secret to anyone.  So she decided to waste away silently.  She stayed locked in her room, refusing to see anyone or eat anything.  Struck as she was with the force of eros, she wanted to die.

Alexandre Cabanel, Phaedra and her nurse
Alexandre Cabanel, Phaedra and her nurse

The chorus of Hippolytus understood her pain, her predicament.  They chanted the following lines:

Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear,
Men’s eyes with hunger; thou swift Foe that pliest
Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear;
Come not to me with Evil haunting near,
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear
Wing’s music as thou fliest!
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire,
Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear,
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire,
Erôs, Child of the Highest!

I won’t reveal what happened next, in case you wish to read the tragedy yourselves.  (It’s well worth a read and does not take a long time.)  Since it is considered a tragedy, however, you probably figured out that the story does not turn out well for either Phaedra or Hippolytus.  Readers and viewers of Euripides’s Hippolytus understand that Eros is not a warm and benevolent gift.  Rather it is an overwhelming, ruthless force that not only has a strong potential for serious damage, but can also kill.

Dido of Virgil’s The Aeneid (19 B.C.) shares a similar fate with Phaedra.  Dido, like Phaedra, is the victim of the scheming love goddess.  (Since Virgil was Roman, the goddess of love is now called Venus, but she is just as destructive as Aphrodite. )

When we first meet Dido, she is a strong, single, successful woman.  She is the founder and ruler of Carthage, an up-and-coming city that has the potential to ruin Rome (in the future).  Because Dido and her city are so successful, however, they pose a threat to Rome.  Therefore they must be destroyed.  Venus, who happens to be the mother of Aeneas (our hero), smites Dido with overpowering erotic love for her son.  Once Dido is struck with Venus’s arrow, she is doomed:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached
With longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound
Or inward fire eating her away.
The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her tie and again; his looks,
His words remained with her to haunt her mind,
And desire for him gave her no rest.

Poor Dido!  This love for Aeneas is not a gift, but a “wound,” and will be the cause of her undoing.  Yes, she and Aeneas do have a mutually passionate relationship for a few months.  But soon, Aeneas is called away by the gods. Yes, they actually visit him and tell him it’s time to leave Carthage to go found Rome. He feels bad, but he tells Dido he needs to move on.

Dido is devastated.  For her, life is no longer worth living.  She can never go back to her content days as Queen of Carthage.  Instead, she builds a funeral pyre, climbs upon it, and stabs herself to death.

Henry Fuseli, Dido
Henry Fuseli, Dido


Keep in mind, all this ruin was caused by Venus, who deliberately started the flames of passion in Dido, knowing full well what the results would be.  In other words, Venus is one cold bitch.

What should you take away from these ancient myths?  The ancients knew something about the power of eros.  They would tell you this:

Be careful.  Pay Aphrodite/Venus the respect she is due.  And then get out of her way before she smites you.

The rock band Nazareth knew this, too, as their hit song from 1976 demonstrates:

“Love Hurts”

Love hurts, love scars, love wounds
And mars, any heart
Not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud
Holds a lot of rain
Love hurts……ooh, ooh love hurts

Badass women in literature: Antigone


Antigone painting by Frederic Leighton
Antigone painting by Frederic Leighton

It’s tough being a woman in classical Greek mythology and literature.   Most female characters fall into two categories.  They can be scary-strong, like Clytemnestra.  This charming woman, along with her lover Aegisthus, murders her husband Agamemnon as soon as he returns home from the Trojan War.   She not only kills him, but is positively gleeful about it.  Here she is bragging about killing her husband in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon:

I struck him twice.  In two great cries of agony / he buckled at the knees and fell.  When he was down / I struck hi the third blow, in thanks and reverence / to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground. / Thus he went down, and the lie struggled out of him; / and as he died he spattered me with the dark red / and violent driven rain of bitter savored blood / to make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers / of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.” (1385-1391)

Not all women are this bad of course.  Some of them, like Helen of Troy, merely run away from their husband and country with another man and, in so doing, start a ten-year war.

Some female characters are good, of course—impossibly good. Odysseus’s wife Penelope waits faithfully for twenty years for her husband to come home from war, not knowing if he is even alive.  The war had ended after ten years, after all, and all the other surviving warriors had returned home.

Human females have the worst of it, but even the female goddesses have it rough.  Hera, who is married to Zeus, has to put up with his constant philandering.  And poor Calypso, who lives alone on an island, is gorgeous but lonely.  She finally finds some satisfaction with her sex hostage Odysseus.  But then she is ordered to send her boy toy back home to Penelope by the council of gods.  Now, what’s a goddess to do for fun?

This is why it is especially refreshing to come across a badass chick like Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles’s tragedy of 442 B.C.   Antigone is far from being a long-suffering goody-goody like Penelope, but she is no murderous she-monster, either.  Rather, she is a young woman who follows her conscience and does what she thinks is right, even though she knows doing so will bring her the death penalty.

Antigone is part of a dysfunctional family, to put it mildly. It turns out that Antigone’s mother, Jocasta, is also her grandmother because Jocasta had unknowingly married her own son Oedipus, who is Antigone’s brother and father.  As the play Antigone begins Antigone is now an orphan.  Jocasta killed herself when she learned that she’d been doing it with her son, and Oedipus, after poking out his own eyes, sent himself into exile.  Got it?

That left Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices to co-rule their kingdom, Thebes.  The brothers did not like to share their toys, however, and they fought over who would be ruler.  Polyneices came back one day from exile and tried to start the whole city on fire.  That led to a fight between the warring armies of Polyneices and Eteocles, brother against brother.  Eventually, the Thebans won, but at the cost of both brothers’ lives.

All of this is back-story to the actual play.  When Antigone opens, her uncle Creon is now in charge.  Creon wants to show everybody who is boss.  One of the ways he does this is to declare that nobody may bury the corpse of Polyneices, the brother who attacked Thebes.  He argues that it would be unjust for Polyneices to be given proper burial rites after trying to destroy all of them.  He tells Thebans, “you shall leave him without burial; you shall watch him chewed up by birds and dogs and violated” (188).   Creon makes it very clear that anyone who buries this traitor shall be sentenced to death.

So Creon is feeling all smug and enjoying his newfound power.  But then Antigone comes along and buries her brother anyway.  She believes she has to do this because a) Polyneices is family and b) it is what the gods decree.    She knows that she is going against the will of Creon and she knows what the punishment is, but she buries her brother anyway and does not try to hide it.  She claims,

“I shall be / a criminal—but a religious one. / The time in which I must please those that are dead/is longer than I must please those of this world. / For there I shall lie forever.”  (lines 85-88).

Good point, Antigone.  We’re all going to be dead for much longer than we’ll be alive, so we should make the people with whom we are going to spend eternity happy.

At its most basic level this is a conflict between the laws of the state and the dictates of one’s conscience or religion. Creon states that there is nothing worse than disobedience to authority.  Antigone believes there is nothing worse than disobeying one’s conscience.  For this reason, she practices what Thoreau called Civil Disobedience and what great leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced hundreds of years later.    Because people still have consciences and governments still make laws we consider unjust, Antigone still resonates with readers today.

There is another layer to the conflict between Antigone and Creon, though: that of gender.  Creon is already foaming at the mouth to find out that somebody defied his law.  But when he found out it was a woman, and a young one at that, he went ballistic.  The reader can almost see his face turn red as he spits out these words:  “I swear I am no man and she the man if she can win this and not pay for it” (527-528).  He is not going to let a mere woman usurp his authority and get away with it.  She. Must. Die.

Antigone accepts her death penalty without trying to weasel out of it.  However, she does tell Creon what she thinks of him and his laws in her brash and brazen way that is so rare for ancient Greek maidens.  I think my favorite of her retorts to Creon is this one:

“Now, if you think me a fool to act like this,
perhaps it is a fool that judges.”    (513-514)

What a great, badass, retort from my favorite Greek heroine.

let us now praise badass women


Sorry Honey, I Ate the Kids! The Eating Disorder of the Greeks

Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)
Tantalus painting by Gioacchino Assereto (1600-1649)


Americans have a problem with food.  The media is awash with stories of how we eat too much fast food, junk food, processed food, sugar, salt, fat, meat, carbohydrates and on and on.  We all eat too much, except for those of us who eat too little.  We don’t eat enough home-cooked food, we don’t spend enough time eating with our families, we don’t eat food slowly enough, savoring every bite of it, and the list goes on.

I am not going to deny any of these charges.  I would just like to point out that it could be worse.  At least we don’t eat our children.

The characters in ancient Greek mythology did, or at least some of them did.  I am re-reading The Oresteia by Aeschylus, which is based on the myth of the House of Atreus.  The story is complicated, but its basic point is this:  if you serve people’s children for dinner, bad stuff is gonna happen to you and your descendants.

The mythological figure of Tantalus started the whole mess.  This guy thought he was the coolest dude on the Mediterranean because the gods sometimes invited him to dinner.  (For a 21st century American, that would probably be like being invited to dinner by the hottest Hollywood movie stars or perhaps by your favorite NFL team.)  His head started to swell (not unlike some professional athletes and movie stars) because of this swell treatment, and he developed a condition known as hubris—the overweening pride that usually goeth before a fall.

So one night a bunch of gods and goddesses came over for dinner.  He was all out of groceries, so rather than calling for take-out, he decided to chop up his own son Pelops and serve him, roasted, to his high class friends.  (Some versions of the myth say he was trying to test them to see if they were really omniscient.)

Let’s just say the party didn’t go all that well.  When the gods found out that their meal wasn’t made of tofu, they were horrified.  They brought Pelops back to life and sent their pal Tantalus to Hades.  His punishment was to be eternally thirsty and hungry.  The gods surrounded him with luscious food and drink, but whenever he tried to reach for food and drink, it blew away, out of his grasp.  Thus, he remains tortured eternally by thirst and hunger and is the source of our word tantalizing.

You’d think Tantalus’s descendants would learn from the errors of their ancestor, but apparently they weren’t that bright.  A whole heap of bad stuff happened to Tantalus’s descendants after the ill-fated dinner party.  We will fast forward, though, to the rivalry between Thyestes and Atreus, the grandsons of Tantalus.  They both wanted to be king, so they were always fighting.  First, Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife.  Then, to get revenge, Atreus followed in his grandpa’s footsteps.  Rather than cooking his own children for dinner, though, he cooked Thyestes’s children and served them to Thyestes, who unknowingly ate his own children for dinner.

So if you are beating yourself up over your latest trip to McDonald’s or the Dairy Queen, give yourself a break.  You could do a lot worse.

Just saying.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go? Tennyson’s “Ulysses”

Armand Assante as Odysseus in the  1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
Armand Assante as Odysseus in the 1997 made-for-TV movie version directed by Andrei Konchalovsky

In my World Literature class, we are finishing up Homer’s The Odyssey.  Odysseus has finally made it home to Ithaca after being away for 20 years—ten in the Trojan War, and ten lost at sea on the way home.  He is greeted not by the warm embrace of his people, but by a band of snarling suitors who want to kill him, as well as a wife who isn’t sure who he is.

In the end, though, Odysseus prevails.  He gets his kingdom, his wife, and his son back.  He is home.  He and his family will live happily ever after, right?

Well, not according to Lord Alfred Tennyson.  He wrote a poem called “Ulysses” in 1833 and published it in 1842.   This poem is based on the myth of Odysseus/Ulysses as it appears not just in Homer’s Odysseus, but also in Dante’s rendition of Ulysses in his Inferno.)

In Tennyson’s poem, reproduced below, Ulysses is far from living happily-ever-after with his family.  On the contrary, he laments being stuck at home.  He is bored with his job (being king!) and with the yahoos he rules.  Worse yet, his wife is aged. After hanging out with all the sex-starved nymphs he met on his travels, Ulysses probably finds Penelope rather unappealing.  So he decides to light out for the territory again.

I have mixed feelings when I read this poem.  On the one hand, this is a blog devoted to travel and other forms of exploration.  How could I not love lines such as these:

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!


This is a gorgeous poem, no doubt about it.  But although I understand the travel bug infecting Ulysses, I can’t help but think about his family, especially Penelope.   She waited faithfully for twenty freaking years, and now he wants to leave again? It’s enough to drive a woman to drink with the swineherds.  Did it not even occur to him to ask her if she wanted to accompany him?  Aaarrrgh!

Tennyson’s poem reminds me of my own pendulum swing between home-travel-home-travel home.  Personally, I like having a solid home base.  It’s wonderful to travel, but it’s always great to come home as well.

But Maybe that’s a woman thing.  Classic literature is bereft of male heroes who are content with their domestic fires.  They are much more inclined to be “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”


What about you?  Would you spend all your time travelling and exploring if you had the option?  Or would you come home to Penelope and stay put?


By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.


There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.