Lesson 2) Greco-Roman Heroes and Voyagers

Professor Morgan flicks the doors of her classroom open with a wave of her wand and ushers her students in with a bit more urgency than normal.

Sorry, my dears! No time for fancy parlour tricks or any of my other usual antics today. We have an incredible amount of information to cover, and I do not want to keep you here too long!

Today we will be covering five of the major heroes and voyagers of Greco-Roman mythology, and what impact their stories had on magic use in ancient times. Your first question might be, what is the difference between a hero and a voyager? In truth, not much. Many heroes were voyagers, and many voyagers were heroes. The basic difference is that a voyager went on a long (time or distance wise) journey. That journey did not necessarily have a quest attached to it, as we will see in the story of Odysseus. Heroes, on the other hand, completed great quests or near-impossible tasks generally for the greater good.

Heracles


Heracles and the Hydra

Let’s begin by looking at arguably the most famous of all the Greco-Roman heroes: Heracles (Roman: Hercules). Heracles was, as many of the heroes of the time were, a direct offspring of one of the gods. In this case, Heracles was fathered by Zeus himself, as Zeus needed an offspring strong enough to battle the giants - which we’ll talk about more in our next lesson! The only problem with Zeus’ plan was the intense rage and hatred his wife Hera felt towards Heracles as he was further proof of Zeus’ infidelities.

Through a course of twisted plans and machinations, Hera managed to drive Heracles mad enough to kill his first wife and children. This horrifying action resulted in Heracles being bound to King Eurystheus, who in turn assigned him twelve seemingly impossible tasks in order to repent for his actions. These tasks ranged from killing beasts such as the Nemean Lion and the Hydra, retrieving mystical items such as the apples of the Hesperides and the girdle of Hippolyta (Queen of the Amazons), and labour intensive works such as the cleaning of the thousands of Augean stables in one day. Heracles completed each and every one of these tasks and so was cleansed of the guilt of the murders he had committed.

The twelve labours were not Heracles’ only acts of valour - there were many, many more feats that included rescuing people from the underworld, righting perceived wrongs, and protecting those who could not protect themselves. But for all his greatness, Heracles’ greatest failing was his intelligence, or lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, if you needed to figure out how to kill a dangerous creature, Heracles was your guy and he would not hesitate to do so. Quite simply, Heracles was very passionate, quick to anger, and almost always repenting for some hasty action that resulted in the death of someone around him.

In a sense, Heracles’ vulnerabilities were what made him the ultimate hero - he still had some human elements to him. So strong was the Greco-Roman belief in his protection of the weak that his name was invoked in numerous protection spells and rituals as both Muggles and Wizards alike believed that doing so would incur his blessing and strengthen the magic.

Another interesting magical aspect to Heracles’ life is actually in the story of his death. When his second wife Deianeira erroneously believes that he has become unfaithful, she sends him a cloak soaked in the blood of the centaur Nessus, who told her it was a love potion. Deianeira was a bit dense, as Nessus gave this cloak to her as he was dying from a wound that Heracles himself had inflicted. While the blood on the cloak did not kill Heracles directly, it caused him immeasurable pain. He consulted with the Oracle at Delphi, who instructed him on how he could die - by lying in a funeral pyre. When Heracles climbed onto the pyre, Zeus sent a thunderbolt to collect him and make him a god alongside his father.

Now, I have it on good authority from Professor Anne that Centaur’s blood is in no way poisonous. Suffice to say that the blood was most likely some sort of potion. The potion may have contained Centaur’s blood as an ingredient, but the blood itself was not the poison. Nonetheless, it was so potent as to cause Heracles enough pain that death was preferable.

 

Jason


The Argo

Our second myth surrounds Jason and the Argonauts. While Jason could be seen as a hero undertaking a quest, he is more considered a Voyager as the result of his quest was not entirely successful, as we will soon see.

Jason was a contemporary of Heracles and had been hidden away as his uncle Pelias had overthrown Jason’s father to rule the kingdom. When he came of age, he journeyed back to his father’s kingdom to reclaim the throne that was rightfully his father’s. Along the way, he managed to slay various brigands and beasts, and arrived with many great feats already to his name.

Pelias was afraid that Jason could forcibly take the throne from him, and so concocted a trial for Jason to prove his worthiness before he would give up the throne. This trial was to claim the Golden Fleece from King Aetes - a treasure guarded by a dragon in a kingdom far away. Jason agreed to the plan, and Pelias figured he would never see his nephew again. Once Jason had left, he killed Jason’s father and Jason’s mother died from grief.

The gods, however, were on Jason’s side, especially the goddess Hera. He consulted the oracles before he left, and they not only determined when he should sail, but also assisted in the creation of his ship, the Argo. The Argo was the largest ship to have been built at that time, and was said to have the ability to both navigate and prophecize itself. Now that would have been a piece of magic!

The Argonauts, those young men who joined Jason on his exciting adventure included Orpheus (who you may recall from Ancient Studies last year), the brothers Castor and Pollux (who incidentally were also brothers to the famous Helen of Troy), Achilles’ father Peleus, and several others. Perhaps the most famous was Heracles; however he had a slight misadventure early into the expedition where his shield-bearer was lost and his grief sent him on another impassioned yet pointless search, forcing the Argo to leave him behind.

After several adventures and misadventures (there were Harpies involved. It was messy.), the remaining Argonauts arrived in Colchis, the country where the Golden Fleece could be found. Meeting King Aetes went about as could be expected. He was infuriated at the thought of giving the Golden Fleece to the Greeks, no matter their exchange of whatever tasks he could possibly wish for them to complete. He concocted a plan not unlike the twelve labours of Heracles for Jason to complete, and Jason agreed even though he suspected the tasks would lead to his own death.

Fortunately for Jason, Hera had been pulling some strings in the heavens with Aphrodite, and the latter’s son Cupid had struck King Aetes’ daughter Medea with an arrow causing her to fall in love with Jason. Luckily for Jason, Medea was a witch of unparalleled skill in her time and she used all of her wits and power, plus a few potions, to help Jason tame a wild bull, and best a dragon.

King Aetes was furious when Jason managed to complete the tasks and secure the Fleece. He chased after Jason and the Argonauts as they fled back to the Argo. Medea, who had fled with the Argonauts bringing her brother along, killed her brother and cut off his limbs, forcing their father to stop and pick up the pieces (for no body could be buried missing any parts). As a result, Medea and the Argonauts successfully evaded Aetes and began their journey home.

Both Medea and Hera assisted the Argo’s safe return to Greece, however their return was not triumphant. Jason discovered the death of his parents by Pelias’ treachery, and begged Medea to help him avenge their deaths. Medea did so in quite a horrible way. She brewed a deep sleeping potion and convinced Pelias’ daughters to cut him up into tiny pieces so Medea could cast a spell to restore his youth. So tricked, the daughters unintentionally killed their own father, and avenged Jason’s parents.

Alas, Medea’s plan caused her and Jason to flee from the kingdom to Corinth as they had just murdered a king themselves. And the tragedy only continued from there. Jason eventually fell in love with another woman, and Medea sought out her revenge by not only killing Jason’s new bride, but also the two sons that she had borne Jason. Jason came charging after her to kill her, but Medea leaped onto a chariot driven by two dragons and escaped, leaving him to his sorrow.

And so the story of Jason ends, but not the story of Medea - watch for her as we discuss Theseus at the end of this lecture - as she is a fascinating, and possibly real, historical witch from Greco-Roman times.

 

Perseus


Perseus and Medusa's Head

After two rather sad stories full of suffering and the death of children, let’s turn our focus to one of the Greek heroes who did actually have a happy ending.

Perseus was the son of Zeus by Danae, who you may recall from our discussion last class on Zeus’ infidelities. Danae’s father had been told that he would eventually be killed by his grandson, and so upon the discovery that his daughter had borne a child in secret, he locked them in a great chest and cast them into the sea.

Protected by Zeus, the chest was carried to an island where Danae and Perseus were found and cared for by the kind fisherman Dictys and his wife. Perseus grew into a fine young fisherman, and Danae stayed beautiful as always. Unfortunately, Dictys’ brother Polydectes was the ruler of the island, and he was a cruel man who set his intentions upon Danae. Wanting to rid himself of Perseus, he tricked the young man into agreeing to defeat a Gorgon, namely Medusa, as a wedding present.

Fortunately for our young hero, both the god Hermes and the goddess Athena were on his side. Hermes and Athena equipped the young man for his journey and led him to the proper oracles to prepare him for the task ahead. Perseus was instructed to force the Grey Women to tell him how to get to the Nymphs of the North who in turn had three key items he would need to defeat the Gorgons.

The Grey Women were a set of three sisters who were more of monstrous descent than mortal, and had the gift of foresight as well as great knowledge of the magical aspects of the world. They shared between them one eye, and Perseus snatched it at the moment one of them was passing it to the other. He swore to return it once they told him the way to the Nymphs, and they did so willingly. Unlike many of the other Greco-Roman heroes, Perseus immediately honoured his word, returned the eye, and left the Grey Women unharmed. This action is perhaps the only time a hero left a so-called monster alive - an interesting twist to the story.

Perseus then arrived at the home of the Nymphs of the North and they happily gave him the three items he needed: winged sandals, a bag that became the right size for whatever he put in it, and a cap that made him invisible. In addition, Perseus already had Athena’s shield to look at the reflection of the Gorgon, not the Gorgon’s stone inducing stare, and Hermes sword that could cut through anything, no matter how hard.

Let’s pause our story to look at these items for a moment. While not an exact representation, these items very closely resemble the Deathly Hallows in symbolic terms. A cap that rendered one invisible which resembles the Invisibility Cloak, a sword that was invincible similar to the Elder Wand, and the shield of a goddess to protect you from the instant death of a Gorgon’s gaze, which is close to, if not quite the same as the Resurrection Stone.

Additionally, the charm cast on the bag allowing anything to be concealed inside was most likely cast with some sort of extension charm, similar to the one that a notorious Hogwarts student used in the fight against Voldemort. These little pieces of magical history do make you wonder if some of the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses may actually have been Witches and Wizards instead. But let’s return to our story.

Of course, Perseus, with the assistance of Hermes and Athena at his side, successfully slayed the Gorgon Medusa as she slept, and the winged sandals helped him flee from the wrath of her two immortal sisters. On his journey home he happened upon a maiden, Andromeda, chained to a rock about to be sacrificed to a sea monster. Using the sword of Hermes once again, Perseus slayed the monster and freed the maiden. Andromeda and Perseus instantly fell in love and with the permission of her parents Perseus took Andromeda home to the island.

Upon his return to the island, he found that Dictys’ wife had died, and he and Danae had hidden themselves as Polydectes had become infuriated at Danae’s refusal of his proposal. Enraged at the trickery, Perseus stormed into Polydectes’ banquet and used Medusa’s head to turn the king and all of his court to stone. He ensured that Dictys would rule the island from that point onward, and then he, Danae, and Andromeda returned to the kingdom of his grandfather.

Through a bizarre twist of fate, Perseus did accidentally kill his grandfather when participating in an athletic contest. His discus went awry and flew into the crowd, striking and killing a spectator. That spectator turned out to be Persus’ grandfather, who had been hiding from Perseus since his return to the island, but had chosen to come out of hiding to watch the contest that day.

Now that the Oracle's’ predictions had come true, and Perseus had done no harm to any innocents, he and Andromeda lived in perfect happiness until their deaths from old age. So favoured were the lovers that they were placed in the sky by Athena as constellations.

 

Odysseus

 
Odysseus and the Suitors

Our second-to-last myth centers around Odysseus, who was both a Hero and a Voyager. He was also both brilliant and very, very unlucky at the same time.

As a hero, Odysseus was the prime example of a strategist during the ten year long Trojan war. It was he who concocted the plan to build the Trojan horse and hide inside - risking death if the Trojans had decided to torch their gift. Fortunately for Odysseus and the Greeks, the plan worked, Troy was destroyed, and Helen reclaimed for Menelaus, King of Sparta.

Unfortunately, it seems that many of the Greeks became rather full of themselves and forgot their promises to the sea god Poseidon and the goddess Athena who had helped them in their fight against Troy. As the city burned to the ground, some of the Greeks raided the sacred temples of the gods. In Athena’s temple, a Greek named Ajax pulled the Trojan princess Cassandra out of the sanctuary and defiled her. So great was the wrath of Poseidon and Athena that they cast a great whirlwind on the Greek ships as they sailed for home, killing many and stranding others.

While Odysseus was not one of the instigators of the crimes, he was unfortunately caught up in the maelstrom and stranded for almost ten years. After a time, Athena regretted the results of her actions and worked to have Odysseus sent home to his wife and son - arriving twenty years after he had left for war. The journey was fraught with peril. A cyclops, the witch Circe, the Sirens, and several other obstacles blocked his path, not to mention the lingering wrath of Poseidon, who took every opportunity to knock him off course and try to drown him for good measure. Unlike many of the other Greco-Roman heroes and adventurers we have discusses, it was Odysseus’ mind - not his strength - that was his greatest weapon.

Upon his return to his kingdom of Ithaca, he faced the final challenge of removing the numerous suitors that had descended upon his home and demanded to marry his wife, Penelope. With the help of Athena and his son Telemachus, Odysseus once again outwitted his opponents and slew all of the suitors, leaving none but the bard alive. The bard was simply a spectator to these events, and Odysseus believed that anyone with the skills of a bard was blessed by the gods. Not wanting to instigate any further fury from the gods, Odysseus let him go.

The interesting point of this myth is that it favours brains over brawn - something not emphasized in other Greco-Roman heroes.

 

Theseus


Theseus and the Minotaur

Our final myth for today centers around the hero Theseus. I’ve left him for last, as there is great debate amongst wizarding scholars as to the possibility that Theseus and his story are actually historical and not mythological.

Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens, although some say that his true father was the sea god Poseidon. He was kept hidden until manhood in order to assist his father in securing the Athenian throne from a prophesied threat.

When Theseus came of age, he journeyed to Athens, creating a name for himself as a warrior of great strength and moral integrity along the way. Upon his arrival in Athens, he discovered that Medea was manipulating his father. Indeed, Medea saw Theseus as an end to her ability to control the throne, and encouraged Aegeus to kill the stranger. Fortunately, Aegeus had left two personal items with the baby he had fathered - a sword and a pair of shoes. Recognizing these items, Aegeus announced the return of his son and heir, and Medea fled to Asia, where she continued to practice magic.

Sadly, Theseus had returned home during a difficult time for his people. The son of King Minos of Crete had perished while visiting Athens, and the price for not destroying Athens over this incident demanded the sacrifice of seven young men and seven maidens every ninth year to the half-bull, half-human Minotaur found deep in a labyrinth in Crete. Theseus immediately volunteered to be one of the victims in order to defeat the Minotaur.

In Crete, Theseus caught the eye of the King’s daughter, Ariadne, who helped him find a way through the labyrinth of the Minotaur with a ball of string. Theseus went into the labyrinth and killed the monster with his bare hands. He collected up the other Athenians as well as Ariadne and set sail for home.

What happened next is not clear, but somehow Ariadne was left behind on an island where the crew had stopped to rest and replenish their supplies. Some say it was absent mindedness, some say the divine intervention of the demigod Dionysus, but regardless, Ariadne was lost to Theseus. Distraught, he forgot to change the sails from black to white; a prearranged signal to his father that he had survived. Seeing the black sails on the returning ship, Aegeus flung himself into the sea from grief. That sea has henceforth been called the Aegean in his honour.

During his reign as King of Athens, Theseus claimed many other victories, and even fathered a son to one of the Amazons. Ultimately, he married Ariadne’s sister, Phaedra. Unfortunately, Phaedra harboured a very inappropriate lusting for Theseus’ son Hippolytus. Through a series of unfortunate events, Phaedra was turned down by Hippolytus, killed herself, and framed Hippolytus for her “murder”, and Theseus either killed Hippolytus for his treason, or banished him, during which Hippolytus was killed. It was only after Hippolytus’ demise that Theseus learned the true treachery that had happened, and he became ostracized and exiled by his people for killing his innocent son.

Theseus died by being pushed off a cliff by the king of a neighbouring kingdom who both feared Theseus’ strength and detested his actions towards Hippolytus. After a time, the Athenians journeyed to this kingdom to retrieve Theseus’ remains to be buried in Athens as the great deeds he had accomplished for his kingdom outweighed his actions towards Hippolytus.

Scholars today believe that myth of Theseus may in fact be based on a real person, as some of the facts in the story are verifiable: Athens was indeed a commonwealth. Also, there is a significant lack of influence and involvement of the gods in this story, which differs greatly from the other Greco-Roman myths.

If the story of Theseus is indeed true, it then leads to a strong possibility that some of the other myths we examined today are also true. Theseus was known to both house and comfort Heracles after the death of his wife, leading credence to that story. If Theseus’ father was indeed being controlled by the dark witch Medea, that means the story of Jason and the Argonauts could be true. We also know that many of the beasts and monsters in these tales actually do exist, even if the Muggles are not aware of them.

In truth, some of the gods and goddesses in the Greco-Roman world may very have been witches and wizards. Whether they were taken for gods and goddesses given their abilities, or whether they were simply impersonating the divine is unknown. Either way, the knowledge that these myths may be true - at least in part, makes them just that much more fascinating, don’t you think?

Regardless of the hero or voyager, their names were often invoked in magic spells and potion making. As we noted before, Heracles was often invoked for protection, and so was Theseus. Odysseus was often referenced in spells having to do with intelligence and wit, while Perseus and Jason may have been invoked for feats of bravery and adventure. Some of these spells were actual magic work, and some, as we noted in last year’s Ancient Studies class, were simply the work of charlatans. While there is no evidence that invoking these names did anything to the magic, the fact that the Greco-Roman practitioners believed they did was enough to make the practice important for us to study today.

And that is all the time we have for today, and then some! There are, of course, many other Greco-Roman heroes and adventurers, Bellerophon and Aeneas to name a couple. We simply do not have time to cover them all! Next class, we shall examine more closely the beasts and monsters that we have been hearing about in these myths. Your assignments today include a short essay, as well as an optional assignment.


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Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur & Storm, Rachel. 1999. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. Hermes House Anness Publishing Ltd. New York.

Grimal, Pierre. Ed. 1989. Larousse World Mythology. Gallery Books, New York.

Hamilton, Edith. 1940. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Mentor Books, New York.

 

Students enrolling in our second year of Mythological studies will find themselves on a whirl-wind tour of Europe. We will study the myths of Greece and Rome, as well as those of the Norse and Celtic people. There will be a special emphasis on Muggle knowledge versus magical fact that will carry us throughout the year. Enroll