Lands of Legend: The Garden of the Hesperides

This month, we’re touring into Greek mythology to visit the Garden of the Hesperides, which was the perfect secluded getaway until the notorious hero Hercules got tasked with raiding the place.

Before we get to the garden, let’s start with the Hesperides themselves. As with many lesser gods in mythology, these nymphs are credited with a great many different parents. Contenders include Nyx, goddess of night, and Atlas, the Titan tasked with holding up the sky. The sisters were Aegle, Erythraea and Hespera, all names that reference different stages of sunset. They were goddesses of the evening, which now that I type it sounds rather like a euphemism, and guardians of the Garden’s arboreal treasure: the golden apples of immortality.

The tree – or, depending on the version, grove – was a wedding gift from the earth goddess Gaia to the queen of the Pantheon, Hera. The apples also had the protection of a hundred-headed dragon, clearly Hera knew her family well enough to be prepared, but its best defence was the fact the Garden was so fiendishly difficult to find. When Hercules was assigned his eleventh Labour and told to steal apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, it was only by utilising his semi-divine might to capture and bully the sea god Nereus that he learned how to reach the Garden, and only with the support of the sun god Helios, who lent Hercules his own enormous golden cup in which to sail across the sea, that he actually got there.

And once he did get there, Hercules was smart enough not to do his own dirty work. He offered Atlas an opportunity that he could not resist; what wouldn’t Atlas agree to, in order to unload his terrible burden for a short time? Hercules would hold up the sky while Atlas stole the apples. Of course, after he had collected the prize, Atlas saw no reason to return to his servitude, but Hercules insisted he needed to settle the weight of the sky properly, with a cushion to soften the load, and he absolutely would if Atlas would only take hold of it for a minute…Obviously, as soon as Atlas was back in place, Hercules grabbed the apples and was gone. Apparently Athena later returned the apples, which makes the whole endeavour entirely pointless, but that’s divine intervention for you.

The Atlas mountain range passes through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, so based on the implied proximity in this myth, it seems likely that the Garden of the Hesperides was intended to be somewhere in North Africa. Another possible location is in southwestern Europe, in the Iberian peninsula, this being favoured by the poet Stesichorus and the geographer Strabo.

Golden apples are a recurring image in Greek mythology. The goddess of discord, Eris, set off a chain reaction that started with a spiteful beauty contest and ended in the destruction of Troy by producing a golden apple ‘for the fairest’ of the Pantheon. The famed athlete Atalanta was slowed in the race that would decide her marriage by the distraction of three golden apples, gifts to her suitor from Aphrodite. The connection might be tenuous, but after all, even the strangest of fruit has to grow somewhere. So perhaps it’s rather lucky that Athena put those beautiful apples back, before they could take root anywhere else.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hesperides, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Hesperides.html, Greek Mythology – Sofia Souli (Editions Michalis Toubis, 1995), Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

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Ladies of Legend: The Fates

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moirai, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/slavic-star-goddess-zorya-guardian-doomsday-hound-and-servant-sun-god-006303, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/z/zorya.html, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html#Zeus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotho, http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Sudice_(mythology),

Welcome to the last installment of Ladies of Legend! I tried to post yesterday but the website crashed, which seems rather ominous given who I’m talking about. Let’s try again.

Fate, according to the Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined’. It also refers to the cross-cultural mythic tradition that the biggest of the big guns, the manipulators of destiny itself, are a trio of women.

In Greek mythology, they are known as the Moirai, or Moerae, meaning ‘apportioners’. When a baby was born, it was said they would appear within three days to decided the course of the child’s life. The fates of mortals were threads to them, to be spun together and, in due time, cut off. They also ruled over the fates of the gods. They are described (Fragments 1018, from Stobaeus, Anthology, trans. Campbell) as sitting ‘nearest of the gods to the throne of Zeus’, weaving their work on adamantine shuttles, and some sources claim that he alone could control them, but other accounts imply that the Moirai were completely independent and that Zeus, too, was subject to their will. Which is obviously the version I like better.

The three figures of the Moirai were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They are usually described as old women, dressed in white robes and sometimes crowns, each either carrying a staff or a symbol of her work. According to some versions, the Moirai were the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night, giving them the siblings Thanatos (god of peaceful death), Nemesis (goddess of vengeance) and the Keres (goddesses of violent death). Other sources say that their mother was Themis, goddess of divine law, and their father was Zeus, with the goddesses Eunomia (of law and order), Dike (of justice) and Eirene (of peace) as their sisters. Yet another account has them as the children of Ananke, goddess of inevitability and necessity.

Clotho’s role was to spin the thread of life. It was she who decided when a person was born and when they died, and one time when the notorious Tantalus murdered his son, the gods piled all the bits of the dismembered boy into a cauldron and Clotho brought him back to life. Being the original multi-tasker, she also helped Hermes invent the alphabet. Lachesis, meanwhile, was the measurer. It was up to her how much life any individual received, measuring it precisely with her rod, and her other duty was Reincarnation Instructor, providing the options – animal and human – for souls to take on as their new life. Atropos, meanwhile, was the eldest of the three sisters, and wielder of the shears that could end any (and every) thread of life. The nature of death was her particular province. During certain battles of the gods, the three of them took a more active role in dealing out judgement, wielding bronze clubs to take down their enemies.

The Moirai had companions in their work – Eileithyia, the Minoan goddess of childbirth, and the Erinyes, or Furies, who punished evil-doers. But the Moirai could also be placated, or even tricked. Athenian brides offered the Moirai locks of hair. Booze would also do the trick. Alcestis, widow of Admetus, once got all three Moirai thoroughly drunk and Clotho admitted that if a replacement could be found to go into the Underworld in Admetus’ stead, he would be freed. Alcestis gave up her own life, but was rescued by Heracles when Death came to get her, so the lovers both cheated destiny and survived.

The Roman parallel to the Moirai were the Parcae, or Fata: Nona, Decima and Morta. They were known as ‘the sparing ones’ and were, of course, anything but. On the day that a child’s name was chosen – this being the ninth day after birth for a boy and the eighth day for a girl – the Parcae would decide upon how long the child’s life would be.

In Slavonic mythology, there are the Sudice, also known – depending on region – as the Sudičky, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. At the birth of every child, it was the Sudice who foretold their destiny. The Slavic Fates appeared as three elderly spinners, the first with an oversize lower lip from licking the thread, the second with a thumb widened from handling the fibres, and the third with a foot swollen from turning the spinning wheel.

Another Slavonic trio of goddesses were the Zoryas, guardians of the universe who kept the Doomsday Hound Simargl chained to the star Polaris. The maiden figure was Zorya Utrenyaya, the Dawn, a warrior spirit and patroness of horses. Her duty was to open the gates so that her father Dazbog’s sun chariot could pass through. She was Zwezda Dnieca in Polish, Dennitsa in Eastern Slavonic and Auseklis in Latvian. The mother figure was Zorya Vechernyaya, the Dusk or Twilight, who closed the gates after the return of the sun chariot. She was Zwezda Wieczórniaia in Polish. The crone figure was Zorya Polunoshnaya, the Midnight, also known as Zwezda Polnica or Polunocnica. She was associated with witchcraft and the Underworld. The three guardians could merge to form the warrior goddess Zorya, who used her veil to shield warriors from death. She lived on Bouyan Island, home of the sun, where the winds of the North, East and West all met. Zorya was married to the god Perun in some versions, while in others her husband was Myesyats, the god of the moon, making her the mother of the stars.

Like the Sudice, the Norns of Norse myth were said to manifest at births to map out the child’s future life. The judgement of Norns nearly always meant a death sentence. There were many such spirits – unlucky people were known to bemoan the malice of their personal Fates – but there were three giantesses said to be the greatest of the Norns. These are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, associated respectively with the past, presence and future. One of their duties was to draw water from the Well of Urðr to pour over Yggdrasill, the World Tree, to keep it alive.

Though the mythic traditions vary from region to region, the Fates tend to represent the natural order of things, and woe betide you if you go against it. They are the warriors of the law, the guardians of justice. Fate may not always be kind, but it can be named. It can even, occasionally, be defied. And it might just win your war for you.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Pasiphaë and Ariadne

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariadne, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ariadne-Greek-mythology, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasiphaë, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Pasiphae.html , http://greekmythology.wikia.com/wiki/Europa, http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Ariadne.html,

Trigger warning: bestiality, suicide

Pasiphaë’s mother was Perse, eldest of the Oceanids, and her father was the sun god Helios. She had two brothers, Aeetes and Perses, both kings, and her sister Circe was a formidable sorceress. Pasiphaë became queen of Crete through her marriage to its king, Minos, and together they had eight children: Acacallis, Ariadne, Androgeus, Glaucas, Deucalion, Phaedra, Xenodice and Catreus. Her most famous child, however, was a son conceived in an encounter that makes literally everyone involved look bad.

The grip Minos had on the throne was a tenuous one at the start of his reign, with his brothers for competition, so he prayed to Poseidon to send a pure white bull as a sign of divine favour. When Poseidon obliged, Minos was intended to sacrifice the bull in his honour, but instead kept it for his own. This infuriated Poseidon, and the sea god decided to take out his temper on Minos’ wife. Pasiphaë was struck by a desperate urge to have sex with the divine bull, to the point that she forced the Cretan court’s pet inventor Daedalus to build her a wooden cow on wheels that was lifelike enough to convince the bull it was worth mating with. It worked so well that Pasiphaë immediately fell pregnant. Her son was named Asterion, but is much better known as the Minotaur: a boy with the head of a bull. As a small child, he was allowed to wander the palace freely. As he grew older, however, he grew more dangerous. Daedelus was tasked to build a labyrinth beneath the palace, where the child could grow to manhood out of sight and out of mind.

Pasiphaë’s adultery was hardly her fault; even a powerful sorceress can only do so much against the curse of a god, and it was Minos who offended Poseidon in the first place. Minos, on the other hand, was entirely responsible for his own wandering eye and Pasiphaë took measures to ensure his fidelity. She laid an enchantment on him that would turn his semen into serpents, scorpions and centipedes whenever he slept with a woman who wasn’t her. The curse was eventually overcome by an Athenian girl named Procris, who used a herbal remedy produced by Circe. I’m going out on a limb here and assuming the sisterly relationship was not a good one.

The strangest aspect of Pasiphaë’s story – and that’s a high bar to reach! – is that her mother-in-law, Europa, had EXACTLY THE SAME EXPERIENCE with a bull, only hers was really Zeus. She then went on to become the first queen of Crete, so things worked out rather better for her.

Pasiphaë has been equated with the moon goddess Selene, and there is an argument she was also a Minoan solar goddess. In Sparta, senior magistrates would sleep at her shrine in the hope of visions that would guide their governance. Her story is fragmented, circling her husband and children, but from what little there is, I know for sure she’s not a woman I would ever want to cross.

It was in this household of monsters and demi-gods that her daughter Ariadne grew up, with her feral half-brother roaming the labyrinth under her feet. Like her mother, Ariadne’s origins are a contested history. According to some, she is a weaving goddess, while others claim she was a snake goddess, or a Great Goddess of Crete. In the best known version of the myth, however, she was a princess, and the only one apart from Daedelus who really understood the labyrinth.

The city of Athens owed a tribute to Crete after the death of Ariadne’s brother Androgeus. zthe tribute was seven youths and seven maidens to be sent every seven (or, depending on the version, nine) years and sacrificed to the Minotaur. To be selected was a death sentence, until Theseus, son of the Athenian king Aegeus, volunteered to go and kill the monster. The odds of his succeeding in that would have been rather low had Ariadne not fallen in love with him and offered her assistance.

Ariadne had free run of the labyrinth. She armed Theseus with a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread to find his way through the passages, and all she asked in return was to be brought with him when he left Crete.

In one version, he failed even that, and she hung herself. In the better known account, he did take her with him, and her sister Phaedra too. The ship stopped at the island of Naxos on its journey to Athens, and Theseus abandoned Ariadne there while she slept. There are versions where the gods demanded it of him, with Athena personally leading Theseus back to his ship, but let’s face it: his personal history is basically one thoughtless act after another with the occasional act of dubious heroism thrown in for counterweight.

Fortunately for Ariadne, one of the gods had a great deal of interest in her. Dionysus, who was the god of wine-making, theatre and religious ecstasy, rescued her from Naxos and married her. Her wedding diadem was so spectacular it was set into the sky as a constellation, the Corona Borealis. She had twelve children with Dionysus: Oenopion, Staphylus, Thoas, Peparethus, Phanus, Eurymedon, Enyeus, Ceramus, Maron, Euanthes, Latramys and Tauropolis. The marriage to Dionysus was, it would seem, a happy one, but when Perseus came to Argos with Medusa’s head, Ariadne was among the guests turned to stone.

Dionysus did not accept her death. He went into the Underworld to get her back and not only succeeded, he brought his mother Semele to the surface as well. Both women became goddesses in their own right, joining the Pantheon on Olympus. Ariadne may have started out in the shadow of the Minotaur, but in the end, she was the woman who walked out of the dark and into Olympus itself. In the end, she got what she wanted: she got free.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Hippolyta and Penthesileia

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://tansyrr.com/tansywp/penthesilea/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolyta A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penthesilea, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otrera

Trigger warnings: references to incest, rape, necrophilia

This post may be slightly influenced by the existence of the Wonder Woman movie, which contains comic book Amazons backflipping off shields and whacking people with axes. It is not faithful to Greek mythology, obviously, nor is it intended to be, but it’s nonetheless a delight to see my ladies of legend on the big screen. Especially when they are setting things on fire.

The Amazons were a race of warrior women, believed to be a real civilisation in ancient times. They originally lived beside the Amazon River, led by their matriarch Lysippe, but Aphrodite took against Lysippe’s son Tanais for favouring war over love. Spitefully, Aphrodite caused him to become obsessed with his own mother. Tanais threw himself in the river, and Lysippe led her family away into the mountains, where they founded the city of Themiscyra.

The set-up of Amazonian society was strictly divided by gender. The Amazons were said to abandon their sons at birth, only keeping the girls. When men were tolerated, they were confined to the domestic sphere and to ensure their obedience, the legs of boys were broken while they were very young. The women fought and ruled. 

The Amazons were supposedly the first to use cavalry in battle. Lysippe and her daughters founded an empire and later Amazonian queens – including Marpesia, Lampado and Hippo – continued that tradition by conquering their way across Asia Minor. At one point they seized the city of Troy, though they were in the end unable to hold it.

They worshipped Ares, the god of war, and the hunting goddess Artemis. They carried bows and half-moon shields, and performed shield dances in Artemis’ honour. It was said that they cut off their right breasts to improve their skill at archery, which I feel only makes sense if your baseline assumption is that archers shouldn’t have breasts at all.

One of the most famous Amazon queens was Hippolyta. She was the daughter of Ares and Otrera, who was daughter of the east wind and a queen of the Amazons herself. It was, in fact, a family of queens – Hippolyta’s sisters Antiope and Melanippe ruled with her over the three principal cities of their land, and her other sister Penthesilea became her successor after Hippolyta’s death.

As a symbol of her authority, Hippolyta wore a golden, jewel-encrusted girdle, a gift from Ares himself. One day the Princess Admete, daughter of King Eurystheus, decided she would quite like to own that magical girdle, and as her father just so happened to have the hero Heracles in his service at the time, the odds of her getting her wish were quite high. Heracles was undertaking labours as a penance for killing his family. The labours usually involved killing other people. Nobody has ever claimed the Pantheon are consistent in their morality. Heracles brought a band of warriors into Amazonian territory to either convince or force Hippolyta to give up her treasure.

At first, it seemed Hippolyta might give up the girdle of her own free will, after she took a fancy to Hercules’ muscle-bound body. So the goddess Hera, who compelled Heracles to start his twelve labours and work for King Eurystheus in the first place, decided to stir up some trouble. She disguised herself as an Amazon and spread a rumour that Heracles and his warriors had really come to kidnap Hippolyta. The queen’s warriors attacked.

In one version, Heracles gave up his pretence at diplomacy, killed Hippolyta and seized the girdle. In another, Melanippe was the sister held captive by Heracles, and the girdle was a ransom Hippolyta paid to get her back. In a third, Hippolyta fought Heracles, and died rather than surrender.

Theseus of Athens (killer of the Minotaur, future king, reliably a cad towards women) was present in Heracles’ company of warriors. Among the plethora of alternate stories is one in which Theseus declared a passionate love for Hippolyta and took her away with him to Athens. They had a son together, Hippolytus. When Theseus decided, inevitably, to put Hippolyta aside and marry Ariadne’s sister Phaedra instead, the outraged Amazons descended upon the wedding party. During the confusion, Penthesileia delivered Hippolyta an accidental killing blow. There is also an account in which Heracles and Theseus are not involved at all; Hippolyta was hunting deer with Penthesileia when the gods sent a capricious wind, and Penthesileia’s spear struck her sister instead.

One thing is certain: Hippolyta died, and Penthesileia inherited her crown.

Penthesileia was a great archer (the trick to it being that she cut off both her breasts). She was also credited with inventing the battle-axe. The fact that Hippolyta’s death was an accident did not stop the Furies from pursuing her killer, so Penthesleia took refuge in the city of Troy. During the war with the Greeks, she fought to defend the city. So formidable a warrior was she that even Achilles fell back when she took to the field.

In the end, he was the one who killed her. Just to make the whole thing unbearably creepy, he fell in love with her the moment he stabbed her, and in one version, had sex with her corpse. A Greek warrior called Thersites then gouged out her eyes, and Achilles responded to the desecration by punching him so hard he died. Thersites’ cousin took revenge on Achilles by throwing Penthesleia’s body in a river.

She was buried eventually – in one account, by Achilles, in another, by the grateful Trojans. Achilles made sacrifices to Apollo, Artemis and Leto in penance for Penthesleia’s death.

As with so many women of myth and legend, Hippolyta and Penthesleia’s stories have sad endings. But myths, you know, have a special immortality: with every different version that is told, they live again. And so the Amazons are reborn, battle-axes and all.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

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Ladies of Legend: Atalanta

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton

Miss February is Atalanta, a Greek huntress with very terrible luck but a very interesting life. The identities of her parents vary from one iteration of the legend to another – one version has her as the child of Iasus and Clymene, while another names King Schoenus of Boeotia – but regardless of who he really was, her father was a man who wanted a son so badly that when he got a daughter instead, he ordered that she be abandoned on a hillside to die. But Atalanta did not die. She was instead mothered by a bear, who fed and protected her, and was later taken in by a clan of hunters, who taught her all their skill. She molded herself after the tradition of Artemis, goddess of the hunt: beautiful, virginal and tough as nails.

Artemis was also, like nearly everyone in the Pantheon, very easy to offend. When King Oenus of Calydon forgot to make a sacrifice to her in his annual acknowledgement of the gods (an oversight dobbed in by her fellow god Helius) the indignant goddess sent a gigantic boar to ravage the countryside in his kingdom. Oenus sent out a call for the greatest hunters in Greece to kill the monster. Among those who answered was Atalanta. Though some of the other hunters objected to the presence of a woman in their line-up, Oenus’ son Meleager declared that either she competed alongside them or they could all go home. So Atalanta stayed.

Before you go getting the wrong impression, this was not the act of an egalitarian prince who believed in gender equality. Meleager had a crush on Atalanta that was so obvious his uncles immediately started doomsaying over it. This was fair enough – not only was Meleager already married, he was sort of cursed as well. Oenus was the father he had grown up with, but by birth Meleager was the son of the war god Ares. When he was born, the three Fates came to his mother Althaia to prophesise what his life would be. Clotho, spinner of mortal life, predicted he would grow to be a brave man; Lachesis, weaver of life, declared he would become a hero; but Atropos, cutter of life, pointed out a log on the fire, warning that Meleager would live only as long as it took the wood to burn to ash. Althaia immediately snatched the log from the fireplace and hid it away. So Meleager grew up, unaware that his life was literally in his mother’s hands.

During the boar-hunt, Atalanta separated herself from the other hunters. Two centaurs, Hylaeus and Rhaeccus, saw her and decided she would be easy prey. Their mistake. Atalanta calmly shot both her would-be rapists dead and went off to join Meleager. When the boar charged into the trap set for it, all went to chaos as the hunters’ over-confidence and just plain misfortune added up to a scene of carnage. Atalanta managed to land an arrow behind the beast’s ear; Meleager followed her up with a spear to its heart, and presented the dead boar’s pelt to Atalanta in honour of her drawing first blood. It was a well-chosen gift for a girl like that, but riled up his mother’s brothers some more, who thought he ought to have gifted it to them instead, based on social precedence. Meleager expressed his frustration with their attitudes by killing them both.

This, understandably, did not please Althaia, or for that matter her two remaining brothers, who attacked Meleager’s city. His wife Cleopatra managed to talk her husband into taking up arms, even though Althaia had cursed him to be defenceless in this war. When he killed the last two of his uncles, Althaia burned the log and Meleager was struck by a sudden savage pain. He died, just as the Fates said he would. Althaia and Cleopatra both committed suicide and Artemis concluded her revenge by turning nearly all of Meleager’s sisters into guinea-hens.

The outcome of the hunt on Atalanta’s side was an entirely unwanted reunion with her father, whose first words to the daughter he discarded were “My child, prepare to take a husband!” Atalanta had more reasoning behind her choice of a chaste lifestyle than a disinterest in domestic life. She was warned against marriage by the Delphic Oracle. She chose a very pointed way of refusing her father’s plans for her life: any suitor contending for her hand would have to compete against her in a foot race. If the suitor won, Atalanta would marry him. If the suitor lost, she would shoot him.

Here’s the thing. Atalanta was really good at running.

She kept to her word – any suitor who could not match her, and none could, lost his life – but that didn’t stop the queue of candidates. Eventually her cousin Melanion (or in some versions, a man called Hippomanes) tried his luck. Before the race, he prayed for help from the goddess of love and Aphrodite favoured him (mostly out of pure annoyance at Atalanta’s stubborn refusal to fall in love) with a gift of three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, instructing Melanion to let them fall during the race.

Atalanta mocked the apples when she saw them, but when he dropped them she could not help being distracted by their beauty and stopped to pick them up. It took all three apples, one dropped right up against the finishing line, for Melanion to outrace her. He definitely cheated. Atalanta married him anyway and for a time it seems that they were happy together. Later, though, while out hunting, they passed a temple – sacred to Zeus in some versions, in others to Cybele – and Melanion persuaded Atalanta to have sex with him inside it. Of course, this brought on divine fury and the lovers were transformed into lions. In Cybele’s version, she compounds the curse with the indignity of using the couple to pull her chariot. Aphrodite’s hand may have been involved in the fulfillment of the prophecy – she’s a goddess who likes her thank-yous to be fulsome, and Melanion was a little too absorbed in a success that wasn’t actually his own.

There are other legends in which Atalanta bore a son, Parthenopaeus, to either Meleager or Ares, and left the boy on the same hillside where she herself was abandoned. Like his mother, Pathenopaeus survived and went on to make a name for himself as a warrior.

Atalanta’s story is a tragedy, in the sense there is not a happy ending. But I’m not sure that, for a woman as fierce and independent as Atalanta, becoming a lioness would be such a dreadful fate. Whether her body was flesh or fur, she’d always be a hunter.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Ladies of Legend: Pandora and Psyche

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hedone.html

Trigger warnings: dubious sexual consent, attempted suicide

The first thing you need to understand for any of the following information to make sense is that gods and goddesses are usually, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. The Greek Pantheon are no exception. They do what they want and if there is even a rumour that someone is better at anything than they are – better at weaving, at music, at winning the subjective mess that is popular beauty standards – they will come and make their competitor’s life absolute hell. Because they CAN. They also have a petty point-scoring system among themselves that leads to vicious pranking; for instance, that little business of the war on Troy.

The Pantheon are a younger generation of gods, preceded by the Titans, and the two battled it out for who would rule. Zeus, the leader of the Pantheon, came out on top and settled in by demanding animal sacrifices from humanity as a part of their worship. The Titan Prometheus was tasked with cutting up the first sacrifice so that Zeus could decide which bits he wanted, and was so artful in his arrangement of the dismembered animal that Zeus ended up picking the bones and the humans were left with all the edible pieces. Zeus retaliated by outlawing fire on Earth. Prometheus, ever the rebel, stole fire right out of Mount Olympus and returned it to humanity, spreading it so far and wide that nobody would be able to take it away again.

Zeus took a subtler approach on his next attack. He had his son Hephaestus, god of smithing, create the shape of a beautiful woman – one source says of clay, another of metal. Zeus then brought her to life. She was a blank canvas for the other gods to bestow traits upon, including beauty, grace, intelligence and persuasiveness, cunning, deceit and a powerful sense of curiosity. In other words, a multi-faceted human. She was named Pandora (in another version, Anesidora) and sent down to earth to be the bride of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. She brought with her a container – a box or a jar locked up with a key that was placed into Pandora’s keeping. The gods told her that if she was to live happily, she should never open the box.

Prometheus, sensibly, did not trust anyone who had Zeus pulling their strings, but Epimetheus had been given this beautiful woman as a gift (as a thing, not a person) and he decided to keep her as his wife. There are shades of Blodeuwedd in this. By all accounts, the couple were happy at first, but there was that box in their house. Pandora could not stop thinking about it. She thought it was unjust of the gods to give her something they didn’t want her to use (well, she wasn’t wrong) and eventually gave in to her curiosity, opening it up to see what lay inside.

There’s some disagreement on what exactly that was. One version has it that she was right, the box was full of wonderful gifts that escaped the second the lid went up and were therefore lost; the better known story is that the diseases and disasters of the world spilled out and were anything but lost, spreading to the far corners of the world like a vicious mirror of Prometheus’s gift. Only one good thing was in Pandora’s box: hope. That, she kept.

She had one child, a daughter called Pyrrha. When Zeus decided he no longer liked this miserable world that he’d brought about and sent a flood to wash the slate clean, Pyrrha and her husband (also cousin, being the son of Prometheus) Deucalion were among the few to survive. One story has it that Zeus was impressed by their goodness and spared them; another has it that Prometheus warned Deucalion in time, which I personally find more credible. Pyrrha helped repopulate the world by transforming stones into women, but she also had six blood children of her own and one of her daughters was given Pandora’s name.

Zeus is touchy about sacrifices. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is touchy on the subject of beauty. When a doting mother was unwise enough to remark aloud that her youngest daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess’s followers turned around and started worshipping the human princess Psyche instead and Aphrodite was livid. She sent her son Eros to take revenge on her behalf by piercing the girl with a divine arrow that would cause her to fall in love with a terrible candidate and make a disastrous marriage. Eros screwed it up by getting distracted by Psyche’s lovely face and literally shot himself in the foot, falling desperately in love with the girl his mother wanted him to destroy. If you can call that experience love, which I feel very dubious about.

Psyche did not even want to be worshipped. It was weird, and uncomfortable, and really lonely. Her two older sisters married and left her behind, as Psyche was so high on the general population’s mental pedestal that nobody dared try for her hand. Her anxious father consulted the oracle of Apollo on where to find Psyche a husband and was told to take her to the top of a steep mountain, where she would be claimed as the bride of a monster so terrifying that even Zeus would fear him.

NEVER CONSULT AN ORACLE. They are the actual worst.

Instead of just letting their daughter live the single life for the rest of her days, Psyche’s parents escorted her to the mountain in tears, fully expecting to never see her again. She was left alone with her terror. Instead of a monster, however, she was caught up by a gentle wind which carried her to the foot of the mountain and into a palatial house. It was beautiful but empty. Disembodied voices and hands tended to her needs, bringing food and playing music. Thoroughly bewildered, she went to sleep, having seen no trace of the prophesied monster.

She was woken in the middle of the night by someone – or something – climbing into her bed. That is straight up nightmare material right there, and it was pitch black, she couldn’t see a thing. Her ‘husband’ (please note, Psyche had not agreed to any part of this arrangement) did not say who he was or why she was there. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies discreetly skims over the details, but it’s very clear what happened: they had sex in a situation where consent was seriously compromised and the stranger left before it got light.

The first night set a pattern. The owner of the beautiful house came to her each night in darkness and never let her see his face. At length they had an actual conversation, with him informing her that her sisters were scaling the mountain to seek her out. Can I just pause there for a moment to acknowledge how brave those women were? They thought their sister had married a monster. They didn’t know if she was even still alive, but they were willing to risk their lives to find out. Psyche’s husband did not want her to let them in but of course she did, asking the obliging wind to carry them safely to the palace. Here, sexism takes over the narrative. We’re expected to believe that the devoted sisters who dropped everything to find Psyche switched over into rabid jealousy as soon as they saw her jewels and lovely clothes. Apparently wanting to know what kind of a man their little sister had married, and being appalled when she couldn’t tell them because she didn’t know, is unreasonable.

They pointed out that she was prophesied to marry a terrible monster, could she really be sure she hadn’t? Who else would refuse to let his own wife see his face? Upon hearing that Psyche had fallen pregnant, they warned her that her monster-husband probably wanted to eat her and the baby at the same time, and told her she should kill him. Convinced by their arguments, Psyche concealed a lamp and a knife in her room. That night, once her husband had fallen asleep, she lit the lamp and saw him for the first time.

It was, of course, Eros. Aphrodite’s son had the form of a beautiful youth and even in bed, kept his bow and arrows close by. As Psyche held the lamp over him, marvelling, she scratched herself on one of the arrows and doomed herself to eternal insta-love. She leaned in to kiss him. The lamp tipped, dripping burning oil on Eros’s bare shoulder, and he flew (literally flew) from the room in a panic. Psyche clung on to him as long as she could, before she lost her grip and tumbled to the ground.

Eros went home to his mother. He knew she would be outraged that he’d decided to sleep with Psyche instead of obeying Aphrodite’s orders to ruin her life (though…you know, her life with him wasn’t great. There’s an argument about semantics to be made there) but apparently a drop of hot oil was too much for his immortal body to handle and he needed his mother to heal him. Psyche was left alone on the mountainside with the crashing weight of realisation that Aphrodite herself would soon descend in a maternal rage. Psyche decided to skip to the finish line and tried to drown herself in a river, but the river god recognised her as the bride of Eros and wouldn’t let her die. She then prayed to the goddesses Hera and Demeter for help. Neither was willing to offend Aphrodite for Psyche’s sake.

Aphrodite duly arrived and started flogging Psyche for the crime of not implicitly trusting her extremely untrustworthy son. But where’s the fun in sticking to physical pain when you can throw in some psychological torture too? She decided to set Psyche tasks that were impossible for a mortal to achieve, then use the failures as an excuse to beat her again. That’s Aphrodite for you.

For the first task, she mixed together grains, beans and seeds and scattered them on the hearth of Aphrodite’s own palace. If Psyche could not separate them all by nightfall, she would be whipped. Psyche tried, but knew she would fail and started to cry. Fortunately for her, an ant noticed her distress and rallied an army of tiny helpers to aid Eros’s bride. When Aphrodite returned, the task was done.

Not that it stopped her coming up with a new one just as difficult – the next day Psyche was sent to take a handful of golden wool from a flock of sharp-horned, poison-toothed sheep. Hovering on the edge of their meadow, Psyche was warned by a nearby reed (yes, an actual reed) that the gold fleece grew burning hot under the sun and riled up the sheep into a ferocious temper. If she went to them after dark, and gathered the wool from thorns and briars instead of the sheep themselves, she would complete the task unharmed.

Psyche followed that advice. Aphrodite was furious. She ordered Psyche to go to the Styx, the river of the dead, and bring back water from its source – not just that, but water taken from the middle of the river, meaning Psyche would have to wade in. Psyche reconsidered plan A, suicide, which would be a lot easier in this particular locale. As she ran towards the dragons that guarded the river, however, Zeus (in the body of an eagle at the time) spied her and flew down to help, having received Eros’s support in an awkward love affair. He filled the jug for her, so that she could return with it to Aphrodite.

Who sent her straight back to the Underworld, to call upon its queen and ask for some of her beauty. It was against all the rules for a mortal to go into the realm of Hades and Persephone and come back alive, but when a despairing Psyche climbed to the top of a tower, planning to jump and just end all of this misery once and for all, the tower itself spoke up to protect her. If she took two barley cakes and two coins, she could bribe both the ferryman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus to let her in. She also had to ignore all pleas for help, refuse any food or drink except for bread and water, and sit upon the ground even if she was offered a throne.

Psyche followed these instructions. Aphrodite sent phantoms to beg her for help, hoping to make Psyche drop the barley cakes, but she ignored them and reached Persephone, who gave her the box without complaint. I’d love to know what Persephone actually thought about this situation and whether she was secretly rooting for Psyche to win or just hoping that Aphrodite would stop complaining if she helped out this one time.

The last test was of Psyche’s will. She had been warned not to open the box, but longed for a god-like beauty to win back Eros and gave into temptation. The box, however, did not contain beauty. It was all a scheme between goddesses. Psyche breathed in a rush of air from the underworld and collapsed, dying.

While she was suffering through Aphrodite’s tasks, Eros was recovering from the burn. Finally fully healed, he came for her just in time, carrying her to Mount Olympus where Zeus gave her ambrosia – the food of immortality. It made Psyche the goddess of the soul and gave her the wings of a butterfly. When her daughter Hedone was born, she too was a goddess, joining the family business as the representative of sensual pleasures.

Male rule-breakers get to be tricksters and heroes. The thieving and deceit of Prometheus helped humanity survive, and his eventual imprisonment and torture only made him a more beloved figure. When the women of mythology break the rules, though, they might not even get the agency of being wicked – they’re just foolish girls who should have known better. The message is very clear: take what you’re given with grace or it will be taken away, ask no questions, expect nothing better than obedience. Even modern books of mythology perpetuate this idea. The truth is, these women were set up very deliberately to fail. Why give a gift, then forbid the receiver to touch it? How can you ask a girl to trust you when you won’t even show her your face?

But Pandora and Psyche are not foolish, or failures. They are survivors of cautionary tales meant to crush female curiosity.

If you want to live outside the box, you have to open it first.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!