Monday, December 27, 2010

The Mythical Background - Classical and Christian in English Literature

In all form of literature – prose, poetry, drama – we find a host of references and allusions to a number of myths and legends, both Biblical and Christian, and of ancient Greece and Rome. Therefore, a knowledge of such myths and legends is necessary for any proper understanding or appreciation of a piece of literary composition. The subject is vast one, too vast for the scope of the present work. Much selection and elimination has been necessary, and even much that is valuable and worthwhile has been left out. Of necessity, attention has been confined only to such myths as form the very basis of certain works or are most frequently alluded to. For a fuller treatment of the subject the readers are advised to consult Miss Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Before the creation there was chaos, a formless void in which water and whirling clouds of gas mingled in a formless and changing mass. No growing thing or crawling beast existed. Then God brought order out of this confusion and the universe as we know it began to take form. Oceans, lakes, and rivers found their places and in course of time lofty mountains raised their tops. The earth with life on it was gradually formed.
Then were created the Titans, a mighty race of gigantic stature but well-proportioned and beautiful to behold. There were also created some monstrous creatures equal in size to the Titans but ugly and terrifying. Some of them were called Cyclops and these had only one immense eye set in the middle of the forehead. And there were also giants with a hundred arms who could not be left to wander the earth, so brutal was their strength and so evil their ways. They were therefore kept imprisoned deep down in the bowels of the earth in a region called Tartarus (Hades or Hell).
The youngest and strongest of the Titans was Cronus, who assumed leadership over all the rest. Cronus soon tired of ruling over a kingdom which had only beasts and other dumb creatures and he asked the Titan Prometheus to make some more noble and exciting creature. He moulded out of soft clay a miniature of himself, exactly like him in all respects, except in beauty and strength. In this way was created the first man. Now Prometheus made more men, and Cornus gave them life and set them down on the earth where they managed to survive, for his was a Golden Age and there was as yet no hate and envy. There were no seasons with their extremes of heat and cold, but constant spring.
Cornus took Titan Rhea as his wife and queen. She bore him a child who caused him great fear, for he suddenly recalled a prophecy that if he were to have children, one among them would become more powerful than he and eventually dethrone him. In great fear Cornus swallowed his first child, and each baby as it was born was swallowed in the same way. When the sixth child was born, Rhea, fearing the fatal visit of her husband, had the child carried away and hidden in a cave on the far-off island of Crete.
This child Zeus, or Jupiter as he came to be called in later times, grew up in the care of some women to whom he had been entrusted. At the age of one year he was tall and fully grown and already he was plotting against his father. It happened that Cornus visited the island of Crete and he was stunned to discover that here lived his son grown to manhood and already equal to him in physical prowess. He did not know that Zeus could rival him in cunning as well.
Zeus pretended to greet his father with affection and respects and he announced a celebration in honour of his father. Unsuspectingly Cornus drank a cup of wine presented to him. But a drug had been mixed in the wine which caused him to vomit! there came out from his stomach all the five children he had swallowed, alive and grown up.
While Cornus was still weak from his illnes, Zeus called his brothers and sisters and asked them to hasten away with him, knowing full well that once the Titan had recovered he would wreck vengeance on them. They fled from Crete and made Mount Olympus their home, and came to be called gods and goddesses in course of time.
When he was fully recovered, Cornus called all the Titans to an assembly and declared war on his rebellious children. Only three of the giants failed to come at his call: old Iapetus and his sons Prometheus and Epitmetheus. Prometheus who had the gift of foreknowledge, knew that in the coming war the Titans would be defeated. He, therefore, advised his father and brother to remain neutral. For ten years the war was waged and no side seemed to be near victory except that the forces of Zeus still held their stronghold on the top of Mt. Olympus.
At last Cornus called a council of war and said to his followers, “Let us build up a mountain even loftier than Olympus and from there we will easily attack them and put them to rout.” Then they went to work and tore huge rocks out of Mount Ossa and heaped these pieces one by one on Mount Pelion, knowing that when the one mountain was added to the other they would tower high above their rivals.
Now Rhea, the wife of Cornus, who feared for the safety of her children, went to Zeus and told him of the plan. She also revealed to him that deep down in the earth were imprisoned the powerful Cyclops and the giants of a hundred arms. Even if they remained where they were, they could make the whole earth tremble. The Cyclops, on the other hand, knew the secret of forging thunderbolts and this was indeed a powerful weapon which Zeus could make use of. Accordingly, Zeus descended to the underworld and offered to free these giants if they would come to his aid. All readily agreed. The hundred armed giants stationed below awaited their signal. As for the Cyclops, Zeus led them up to Olympus, where they began immediately to forge their thunderbolts.
Cornus and the other Titans meanwhile continued to work and soon the growing mountain was level with Olympus. At a signal from Zues, the giants in the earth’s centre began to shake the world, so that the newly-made mountain collapsed. From the Cyclops, he took the thunder bolts and hurled them with devastating effect. The Titans now begged for mercy, knowing that victory had at last gone to the enemy.
Zeus set apart the grim region of Tartarus as their prison; and after falling for nine days and nine nights, the Titans reached this realm, to which they were condemned for ever. Atlas, a son of Iapetus, was given a different punishment; he was condemned for ever to bear the world on his shoulders. The aged Iapetus and his other sons, Prometheus and Epimetheus, were left free to roam the surface of the earth. Zeus was now God, the supreme ruler of all the world.
Thus began the rule of the second dynasty of the gods, called the Olympians, Keats has made  use of this war of the gods in his epic fragment Hyperion.
After Zeus became god, he introduced many changes in the world. He divided time into seasons so that there was one season of extreme heat, one of extreme cold, and two temperate seasons in between. This in turn led to other changes. Men were compelled to build shelters to protect themselves from the extremes of weather. In course of time man began to hunt and he killed and devoured many beasts of the forest which hitherto had remained undisturbed. So a new kind of war was begun and often man was not the victor but the victim. Some men were better clothed and better fed than others, and this also caused quarrels and fighting. Man was thus at war with man.
Prometheus, who had created man, wanted that something must be done to protect this race of Man from the shivering cold of winter. So he begged Zeus that he be permitted to give fire to man to yield him heat and light. But Zeus refused fire to Prometheus and ordered him to ignore mankind and leave it to its fate.
However, Prometheus did not obey him. He found a reed well dried in the sun. Then he hid himself one night close to the place where Pheobus Apollo, the Sun-god, began his blazing journey across the sky. As the god drove by, Prometheus held the reed against one of the fiery wheels and it burst into flame. Then he descended to earth and brought fire to man and taught him its many uses. For the first time Man felt superior to the beasts. Prometheus advised Man to keep this a secret, knowing that when it was discovered he would suffer dearly for his disobedience.
But one night Zeus saw a glow on earth. It was reported to him that man now had fire, and Zeus guessed at once who had given it to man. So he summoned two of the giants – Force and Violence they were named – who were even more powerful than Prometheus, the fire-giver. He ordered them to carry Prometheus to the lonely peak of a mountain in the Caucasus. Hephaestus, later known as Vulcan, forged unbreakable fetters and with these Prometheus was bound to the rock. Zeus further ordered that a vulture should each day devour the Titan’s liver but each night the liver should grow back, and in this way he should suffer eternal torture. Zeus hoped that Prometheus would repent of his crime and he promised him freedom if he would confess his crime and beg his pardon. But Prometheus refused to do so. And he knew too that one day in the distant future a hero would come to break his chains and give him freedom. It was centuries later that this hero did come to free him from his torture. It was Hercules who at last freed Prometheus. And so was partially repaid mankind’s debt to its greatest and most heroic champion.
Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is based upon this myth.
Acrisius, the King of Argos, had a daughter whose beauty was so great that all men marveled to behold it. Her name was Danae. But the King longed for a son to carry on his noble line. One day he sent a messenger to the city of Delphi, where dwelt a famous oracle (prophet), and of him he asked if he was destined to have a son. The oracle prophesied that Danae, his daughter, would bear a male child. But this son would be the cause of his death.
Acrisius was terrified. He did not want to have Danae killed and so he ordered that a house of bronze be built with no windows and only a single door, of which he himself kept the key. This house was sunk into the ground and light and air came only through the top. Here Danae remained alone, with only an old nurse to serve her. But one day, by chance, Zeus saw Danae and at once fell in love with her. Soon after, as she lay bored and desolate in her prison home, a shower of gold came falling through the tower’s opening. This was no ordinary gold, however, but Zeus himself. When he left Danae’s side, he did so as a glittering stream, which rose shining to the skies.
A son was born to Danae in course of time. Soon, the king came to know of the birth. When he saw the child, and remembered the words of the oracle, he was much frightened. He ordered a huge chest to be made and in it he placed Danae and the newborn infant. The chest was taken to the sea and set afloat on a stormy night.
The king had wanted to destroy them in this way. But Fate had destined otherwise. The sea became calm, and the chest slowly and slowly reached finally a country called Seriphus.
A fisherman, and a brother of the king of this land, found Danae and her son. He was a good man, and childless, and he took Danae and the boy to live with him in his humble but at the sea’s shore. He treated them with kindness. The child grew to manhood and was of exceeding beauty, grace and strength. He was named Perseus.
One morning Venus floated ashore on a huge sea shell, having been formed deep in sea out of the sea foam. Her very name Aphrodite is the Greek word for “foam-risen”. She was received by the Hoors, gentle maidens who dressed her nakedness in the clothes such as are used by the immortals and brought her to the gods at Olympus. The birth of Venus took place in the sea near Cothera, but when she came ashore, it was on the Island of Cyprus. For this reason sometimes she is called Venus Cytherean and sometimes the Venus Cyperian.
When she was brought before the Olympian Gods, all the gods fell in love with her, but Zeus gave her to Vulcan. A son Cupid was born to her. He was blind. The bow and quiver of arrows which his mother gave him he used sometimes to good and sometimes to evil effect. Some of the arrows had tips of gold, and these, when they pierced a human breast, aroused sentiments of love and desire. There were other arrows which aroused the feeling of hate. One day, when Venus was playing with her prank-loving son, she accidentally pricked her own breast with one of the gold-tipped arrows. At that very moment she looked down on earth and saw young Adonis out for hunt. She fell in love with him. She came down from her Olympian palace, garbed herself in the manner of the divine Huntress, Diana, and joined Adonis in the hunt. When the moment came for rest and refreshment, she fed him mostly kisses, and entertained him with stories of love.
Time passed happily in this way. At last the goddess bade farewell to her beloved and in parting, warned him, “For my sake, be content to hunt the timid and less fierce creatures of the woods, and never a lion or a tigress or a wild boar!” Then, mounting her chariot, she took to the air, casting many a backward glance at her lover. No sooner was she gone than Adonis roused himself for the hunt, and ignoring her advice, he followed a wild boar. As soon as his hounds had cornered the beast, he let fly his spear, but succeeded only in wounding the animal. The enraged beast turned upon him, and in an instant killed him. The groans of the dying lad Adonis reached Venus. Quickly she returned to earth and was wild with grief to find a lifeless form which could respond no more to her warm kisses and embraces.
In order to commemorate him, she sprinkled his fresh blood on the soil and within an hour a bright red flower grew on the spot. This came to be called anemone, or wind flower, for its life is short and almost as soon as it reaches full growth, its petals are scattered over the earth.
Vulcan came to know that his wife Venus was deceiving him, and he decided to have his revenge. Apollo was the first to know of the secret meetings of Venus and Mars. This he reported to Vulcan. After he had recovered from the shock, the lame god made a net of bronze with links of such fineness that the mesh was invisible to the naked eye. It had all the softness of a spider’s web. This he spread over his own marriage couch, then hid himself nearby. When Venus and her lover had stretched themselves upon it, he drew it fast and held them thus imprisoned in close and shameful embrace. Then he threw wide the doors to the bedchamber and all the gods and goddesses were called in to see the spectacle.
Orpheus was born of the union of one of the Muses, Calliope, and a young prince of Thrace. The gift of enchanting music he had from his mother, and it is said that all who listened to were held spellbound by it. Not only gods and mortals, but the very rocks and streams were affected by his music.
Perhaps it was his music that first attracted the maiden Eurydice; perhaps it was the beauty of his person. They were married and Hymen, god of marriage, himself came to perform the ceremony, but his torch sputtered and smoked and would not catch fire. All knew that this was an ill-omen. Immediately after the wedding, Eurydice, while walking through the deep grass, was stung by a poisonous snake, and fell dead at the feet of her lover.
Orpheus mourned his bride and finally decided to go down to the underworld to bring her back. He reached Persephone and Plato, the rulers of the world of the dead. Then he took out his lyre, began to play a plaintive melody. He told them in song that he dared descend to the underworld only to see his wife, whose love he had enjoyed for so brief a span he begged that she be released and allowed to go with him to the world above. Eurydice was summoned and it was decided that she might return with her lover to the world above. But there was one condition: Orpheus must not look back during his journey from the nether world; if he did, he would lose his bride once again.
Slowly the couple began its journey through the realm of the dead. They had almost reached the outer world, when the anxious lover looked backwards and in that instant she was gone. Dying a second time, fair Eurydice made no complaint, for she knew that this misfortune came of the great love her husband had for her.
Milton refers to this myth in his L’ Allegro. The cheerful man would like to enjoy such music,
That Orpheus’ self may heave his head
From golden slumber on a bed
Of heaped Elysian flowers, and hear
Such strains as would have won the ear
Of Pluto, to have quite set free
His half-regained Eurydice.
Cephisus, the river god, violated the chastity of a nymph as she was bathing in his river. Of their love was born a child of extra ordinary beauty called Narcissus. By the time he was sixteen, such was his beauty that all loved him at first sight.
One day, as Narcissus was hunting in the forest, he was seen by the nymph Echo, who could not speak at any length, but had only the gift of repeating the last words she heard. She fell deeply in love with the lad at once, but could not speak of her love. Once when he called aloud to a friend who had strayed, “Will you come,” Echo answered, “Come!” He continued to call out, only to be astounded by the same strange reply. Finally, Echo came forth from behind a tree and sought to embrace Narcissus. But he fled from her embrace.
The nymph was cruelly hurt by this insult and henceforth sought the seclusion of desolate caves. Her love did not lessen and she wasted away with grief until nothing remained of her body. Only her plaintive voice continued to be heard in woodland and country-side. Narcissus rejected not only poor Echo, but all who sought his company and love. The goddess Nemesis (Fate) one day granted the prayer of one of his scorned lovers. “Let Narcissus love only himself and never find respite from his sorrow.”
And so it actually happened. One day the boy saw his own reflection in a pool of water. As he stretched himself at the stream’s edge to drink the clear water, he fell madly in love with the image that looked back at him, Pathetically enough, he admired and desired his very self. He tried in vain to kiss the reflection he saw. Neither eating nor sleeping, he suffered great anguish. He could not bring himself to leave the water’s edge and soon began to pray for relief in death. Slowly he pined away. Towards the end, he looked fondly at his reflection in the pool and weakly called, “Farewell!” Echo, ever loving and ever watchful, faintly answered, “Farewell!” And so died the fair Narcissus. Where he died at the quiet water’s edge, there grew a pale and lovely flower which to this day bears his name.
Young Perseus, son of Danae, was washed ashore with his mother on a small island, where they were befriended by the fisherman Dictys. The beauty of Danae was such that the ruler of the island kingdom, at once fell in love with her. But for Perseus he had no love, and he thought of a cunning way to be rid of him.
One day he let it be known that he was to be married and ordered a huge celebration to which many were invited. Now it was the custom for all the guests to bring a costly gift. When it was the turn of Perseus to announce his offering, he stood silent, for he did not know of this custom and had come empty-handed. But he stood up proudly and said, “No gift do I bring, O King, but if there is aught on this earth that you desire that may be had through love or daring – that thing will I bring to you!”
The king smiled on the lad and said, “Bring to me, the head of Medusa!”
All the assembled guests were silent, for they knew now that the king wanted to kill Perseus. None had seen the face of Medusa and survived, for to look at her face was to be changed at once into stone. Perseus was being sent to his death. But Perseus at once agreed to go. He first went to a high cliff to be alone and gather his thoughts. As he stood, lost in darkest thought, he discovered that two figures were close by. He recognized them at once, that the man with winged sandals was Hermes and the majestic woman was Athena. Then the goddess addressed him. “O foolish and brave Perseus! You were tricked into a rash promise by the king. But with our help, you will slay Medusa.”
Then Hermes said, “You may have my sandals and they will carry you with the wind’s speed to your destination. And my sword you may take to slay Medusa.” And Athena said, “Take my shield and when you encounter Medusa, gaze not upon her directly, but use this polished shield as a mirror to guide your death-giving stroke.”
First, with the aid of his borrowed sandals, Perseus flew northward where lived the three Gray Women. He was told by Athena that they will help him in his quest. These Women had but a single eye, which they shared amongst them. They passed it from one to the other and took their turns in viewing the bleak world in which they lived. Perseus approached quietly and just as the eye was being passed, he snatched it from the hands of one of the women. Now they were helpless. Perseus then told them of what he wanted and that they must direct him to the Garden of the Hesperides. Here there lived, as guardian of a tree on which golden apples grew, a band of nymphs, daughters of the giant Atlas. On his arrival he told them how he sought Medusa’s head. The nymphs, in love with him at first sight, gave to him the Cap of Darkness, a magic cap which rendered its wearer invisible. With this Cap, Perseus continued on his journey.
The winged sandals carried him towards his goal. He came finally to a dreary place where he saw forms in stone which once had been men and animals, and he knew that he was close to Medusa. Looking now only at the shield, he watched the passing reflections mirrored in it. and then, suddenly, he came upon the Gorgons. They lay asleep and even in slumber they were horrible to behold. Only the face of one of them was of great beauty and for this reason she was more dreadful to look upon. She had claws like those of a vulture and scales on her body like those of a sea-serpent. And in place of hair, there were vicious snakes which hissed and writhed.
The Perseus waited no longer. Looking only at the shield’s reflection, he took out his sword and struck with strength and skill. The head of Medusa rolled from its evil body and the hero wrapped it quickly in a goatskin he had brought with him and winged back.
When Perseus reached the king and announced that he had brought back the head of Medusa, the king did not believe him and called it all a lie. Then Perseus called out to his assembled friends, “Protect your eyes!” and uncovered the head and held it before him for the king to see. The king was at once turned to stone. Thus was justice done and Danae and her son avenged.
Psyche was a maiden of extra-ordinary beauty; people came from distant places to see her and fell in love with her, and neglected the worship of Venus, the goddess of youth and beauty. At this, Venus was much displeased. She called to her side her prank-loving son Cupid and pointed out Psyche to him. “Go,” she said, “and pierce with your arrow the all too proud and lovely breast of that boastful girl. Make her fall in love with the most vile and miserable creature that you can find on the earth below.” But Cupid himself fell in love with her.
Men looked upon Psyche with longing and desire but her beauty was so awesome that none could express his love for her. While Psyche remained a virgin, her two sisters won lovers and husbands for themselves. So Psyche lamented her lonely life and came soon to despise her own beauty. Psyche’s father began to suspect that this was the work of some unfriendly god or goddess and went himself to consult the Oracle of Apollo. The words he heard were terrifying ones. Psyche was to be dressed in clothes of mourning, taken to a neighbouring mountain and left there for the approach of her lover and future husband. And he would be no fair youth of godlike splendour, but a dire and fierce winged serpent from the skies.
So Psyche was left alone on the mountain peak. But as she stood alone gentle Zephyrus, servant of Cupid, picked her up and carried her tenderly to a pleasant, scented valley far below. For a while she slept and then awakened refreshed. In the distance she saw a magnificent building and hastened towards it. It seemed built not by the hand of man but by some god. Cautiously, Psyche ventured into this building and saw that nobody lived in it. At night she went to bed with a beating heart. Then her lover, Cupid, came to her and remained with her, though invisible, all through the night. With the first dawn he was gone, leaving the new bride to wonder at her strange but not unhappy lot.
But after long days and nights had passed and Psyche had become accustomed to her life of luxury and love in he husband’s arms, she became bored and restless. One night she begged her husband that her sister be permitted to visit her. Reluctantly, Cupid consented but warned her not to tell them anything about him or the nature of their life together.
When the sisters were brought to the valley where Psyche was so richly housed, Psyche led them to her home. Soon they asked Psyche, what was her husband like? Remembering her promise, she spoke in vaguest terms and described him as a comely, beardless lad, who spent his days away from home hunting in the hills and fishing in the nearby streams. But the sisters soon frightened her by telling her of the oracle of Apollo and convinced her that, as had been prophesied, she was married to, not a young god, but a serpentine monster of horrible appearance. They suggested that she should arm herself with a sharp blade and a lantern and when her husband was sound asleep to see his face for herself. If he was indeed what they had said, she could cut off his head and free herself from this horrible bondage.
That very night she did as had been suggested to her by her sisters and when her husband was in a deep sleep, she took her oil lamp and had a look at him. What she saw was not a monster, but rather the most beautiful of young men. Frightened she fell to her knees seeking to hide her shameful act. Some drops of oil fell on Cupid’s shoulder and the pain awakened him. Without a word of farewell he disappeared, leaving the girl to mourn her misdeed and her sad fate.
In course of time. Venus came to know of the love of her son for Psyche, and inflicted terrible punishment upon her.
Psyche faced the wrath of Venus with great courage and fortitude and was in course of time raised to the status of a goddess, the youngest of all goddesses.
Keats’ Ode to Psyche is based on this myth of Psyche.
Athamas and Nephele were the king and queen of Thessaly. In the first happy years of their marriage they had two children, Helle, a girl, and Phryxus, a boy. When Athamas no longer loved his queen, but loved another, the anxious mother feared for the welfare of her children and planned to send them far away to a safe land. Mercury came to help her and supplied a ram with fleece of gold, that had the power of flying through the air. Phryxus and Helle mounted the ram and began their journey. As they passed over a sea, Helle fell down and was drowned. In memory of her, this sea was for long known as the Hellespont. But Phryxus reached safely the kingdom of Colchis and was well received by King Aeetes. The ram was sacrificed to Jupiter and the golden fleece hidden in a quiet grove, where it was guarded by an ever watchful dragon.
Near Thessaly, there was a kingdom, ruled over by Aeson, father of Jason. Aeson gave over the crown to his brother, Pelias, on condition that, when Jason came of age, he should be given it back. But when Jason came to demand his kingdom, Pelias said “Let the youth first try himself by a bold adventure. He should bring to him the golden fleece.” Jason agreed to do so. A fine ship was made for him by Argus. There was room in it for fifty men. In honor of its builder, it was named the Argo, and those who sailed in it were called Argonauts.
Then, Jason, with a selected group of heroes, among them being Hercules himself, set sail on his adventure. Then one day, when the sea was calm, an island was sighted and they sailed towards it. It was the island of Lemnos. In earlier days, the man who inhabited the island had gone off to war in Thrace and had brought back only the women and maids as captives. For these, they developed so strong a passion that they rejected their own wives and the young girls who had so patiently awaited their return. The native women of Lemnos were so angry that they armed themselves and slew not only all the captives, but all the men and boys who had once been their husbands and lovers in the past. These women then became warriors and learned to do all the work of men. They are known as Amazons. Jason and his companions were allowed to enter by these women. The Queen sent a messenger to ask them to land at once and enter the friendly city. Then, in this once quiet city, there was dancing and merry-making. Only Hercules and a few others stayed on the ship. Day after day, the ship remained anchored in this happy port and the sailing was repeatedly delayed. At last, Hercules in anger addressed the men, “Is this the way to win fame?” he asked, “To plow the fields for foreign women by day and make love to them at night! Did we set sail only for this, or to bring the Golden Fleece from far-away Colchis? Let us sail once again on our way!” And all knew that he spoke wisely, and quickly they made themselves ready for departure. The Argo thus sailed once again.
During the course of their journey they reached the kingdom of Amycus, a proud and boastful king. He had made a law that, if strangers came to his land, they should not be allowed to depart unless one of their members met the king himself in a boxing match. So, when the Argonauts landed, Amycus and his subjects met them on the shore and the king announced, “Select your bravest fighter to meet me in a boxing match!” Polydeuces stepped forth from the ranks of the Argonauts ready to fight with him.
The boxing-match began at once. Many fierce blows were landed by both fighters, who panted and sweated like angry bulls. At last, Polydeuces struck the king with all his might, and the king, in agony, fell down and as the Argonauts gave out a cry of victory, he breathed his last. Then his subjects rushed at the invaders, but were quickly defeated. The Argonauts then returned to the ship and sailed away.
Next they reached the shores of Thrace, where Phineus was king. The Argonauts were welcomed and brought as guest to his palace. When they were all assembled the king told them of his trouble. “As you see”, he began, “I am blind and old and weak and hardly have strength to speak. This is the punishment for something I did in the past. You will see in a moment the terrible torture I have to suffer.” As he spoke, the food was being brought to the banquet tables. But before the king or his guests could eat it, a fluttering of many wings was heard and a band of Harpies flew into the hall. These were part women and part vultures, with the head and breasts of the former and the wings and claws of the latter. Quickly they snatched the food from the hands of the diners and flew away. Only a few morsels were left, so that the tormented king may not die and thus be freed from his torture.
Two of the Argonauts, Zetes and Calais, who were children of the North Wind, and could fly like the wind, rose from their seats and pursued the Harpies. Soon they overtook them and would have slain them all, had they not been told by a divine voice that these Harpies were the Hounds of Jupiter and should not be killed. The same voice promised that the Harpies would never again torment the blind king. The king could now eat and drink in peace, and he gratefully told the Argonauts the way to Colchis. And he warned them about the danger of the Clashing Rocks, called the Symplegades, and how to pass by them safely.
Whenever unsuspecting ship sailed between these huge rocks, they rushed together with a terrible force and crushed between them the passing ship. Phineus told the Argonauts to release a dove when they approached this spot and if the dove flew safely between the rocks, this was to be taken as indication that they may also sail through. The dove flew through the opening, losing only one of its tail feather, as the rocks closed. The men cheered and sailed through as the rocks separated. On the crest of a huge wave, they safely passed by this danger. And then, finally, the shores of Colchis came in sight and they could see in the distance the palace of Aeetes, the king of the land.
Not knowing of their quest, Aeetes invited the bold adventurers to his palace and after they had supped with him, Jason told the king of his purpose. The king tried to conceal his anger and said to Jason: “O worthy Argonauts, we too, prize the Fleece of Gold which hangs in yonder sacred grove. This treasure we will yield to you gladly, but, first a few tasks should be preformed for me by one of your brave band. First, there are two bulls with legs of bronze which breathe fire from their nostrils. They must be yoked and made to plow a field. Then you must take some seeds which I have in my possession and sow them rapidly. The crop will be a strange one, for warriors fierce will grow out of the ground. These you must slay without any help from your companions. If all this is so accomplished, then the Golden Fleece will be yours and you may carry it safely back to your country.”
Jason agreed to do all this. Now Medea, the daughter of Aeetes, knew witchcraft. At their first meeting, she fell in love with Jason. She approached him as he stood alone outside his camp and offered him her help. She gave him an ointment, with which he was to cover his body and his weapons. This would protect him from the blows of the enemy, and the fire which came out from the nostrils of the brazen bulls.
Thus provided Jason came to the field. In a moment, the gate was opened and the two bulls, with legs of bronze, bellowing and breathing fire, rushed at Jason. He met their fierce attack and neither their physical power nor the fire which they breathed out could harm him. Quickly, he brought them to their knees, yoked them to the plow and, to the cheers of the Argonauts, plowed the field. Next he sowed the seeds, and at once, hundreds of fully armed warriors grew out of the ground. Jason remembered the advice of Medea. He picked up a huge stone and threw it in the midst of these warriors. Immediately, they turned from him and began to fight among themselves for the possession of the useless stone. In a short time, they slew one another and Jason quickly killed the few who remained.
Jason did not go directly to Aeetes to claim his prize. By now he understood the real character of this deceitful king. But that night, when all were asleep, the Argo was made ready for sailing at short notice. Then Jason hurried to the grove where the Fleece was hung and removed it from the tree. Then once again, the Argo set sail with Medea on her board, to be the bride of Jason.
Jupiter, the great God, one day beheld Alemena, the wife of Amphitryon, and at once fell in love with her. When the husband was away fighting a war, Jupiter assumed the exact shape of the absent Amphitryon. Alemena, unaware of the deception, received him willingly. And of the union, Hercules was born.
Juno, the Queen of Jupiter, hated Hercules from the beginning. One day, when the infant was asleep, Juno sent a huge serpent to sting him. But the eight-month-old Hercules calmly grasped the frightful creature just under the head, and crushed it to death.
As Hercules grew young, he became famous for his strength and courage. One of the first brave actions of his youth was the slaying of a fierce lion that had terrified the shepherds of his country. He next helped the natives of Thebes against their hated enemy and was rewarded by being given the lovely princess Megara in marriage. She bore him several beautiful children. Jealous of his good fortune, Juno sent a sudden madness to overtake him. Sitting with his family, Hercules suddenly thought them not to be his wife and children, but wild animals. He slew them all. Then he returned to his senses and knew of the misfortune he had brought upon himself. So great was his horror and sorrow that for a while he roamed the forests like a wild beast, and no man dared to come near him. He wandered until he come to Delphi, where he asked the oracle of Apollo, as to how he could purge himself of the sin. The oracle told him that he should go to his cousin. Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, follow his directions and perform whatever adventures he wants him to undertake.
The first labor set to him was to slay the Nemean lion. When no arrow shot by Hercules would pierce its skin, Hercules dropped all weapons and with his bare hands suffocated him to death. Next he was sent to slay the Hydra of Lerna, a serpent-like creature with nine heads, one of which was immortal. In this task Hercules was helped by his cousin, Iolaus. As he cut off one head of the monster, two grew in its place. Then Iolaus, directed by his great cousin, heated a brand, and as Hercules chopped off each head, he burnt the neck with the glowing brand and no new heads grew back. Over the last immortal head he rolled a huge rock and from  under its heavy weight, the Hydra could never come out.
The third labor set to Hercules was to bring to the court the Cerynean stag, sacred to goddess Athena. Hercules chased it for a whole year, and when it was worn with fatigue, captured it, and with Athena’s consent, brought it to Mycenae. The fourth task given to Hercules was to master a wild boar which lived in a cave high in the mountains. Hercules pursued the beast relentlessly and when finally the winter snows fell, he was enabled to track the weary animal to its last hiding place, and capture it.
The (fifth) task set to him was much more difficult. There was a king Augeas, who ruled over a fertile country, and had large herds of cattle. So numerous were his herds and so few his servants, that his stables were never clean and the filth increased from year to year. The king gave Hercules the seemingly hopeless task of cleaning the stables in a single day. But Hercules diverted the courses of two swift-flowing streams so that they flowed through the Augean stables and cleansed in a single day the filth of years. The Idiom “Cleansing the Augean stables” comes from this adventure.
Next, Hercules was asked to free the country from he Stymphalian birds, a strange bird with claws of iron and quills sharp as a huntsman’s arrow. Hercules took with him a huge shield for his labor. He rang a bell, which he also carried, made a clamorous noise on the shield, and when the birds attacked him with their murderous quills, they blunted their points on the huge protecting shield. Thus defeated birds flew off, and Hercules killed many with his own well-aimed arrows.
Next, Hercules was sent to the island of Crete, to conquer the savage bull which was Poseidon’s gift to King Minos. Hercules found the bull one day drinking from its favourite stream. And grasping the animal by the horns, wrestled with it and subdued it. Suddenly, after it had been conquered, all fierceness went out of the bull and it became gentle and willing to follow its new master.
For his eighth labor, Hercules was sent to conquer a pair of steeds belonging to King Diomedes. These fierce creatures fed only on human flesh. With his bare hands, Hercules brought them to their knees and drove them of subdued and conquered. Next. Hercules was sent to the land of the Amazons, where the beautiful Queen Hippolyta reigned. Hercules was ordered to bring back the girdle of Hippolyta. Now the queen had heard of the wondrous exploits of Hercules, and willingly offered herself as well as the girdle. When Hippolyta came down to the sea to bid farewell to Hercules as he prepared to set sail homeward, Juno spread the rumour that Hercules and his companions were carrying off the queen. The Amazons attacked them, and Hercules, suspecting that it was a plot of the Queen, slew her.
His tenth labor was to bring to Mycenae the cattle of the giant Geryon, who had three bodies and heads and extra arms and legs. As Hercules neared Geryon’s domain, a mountain blocked his approach. Then Hercules broke the mountain and pushed the two halves to either side, creating a narrow sea passage through which he sailed. The Pillars of Hercules, as they are called, still stand on either side of the strait of Gibraltar, and every one can see them there. Hercules soon arrived at his destination, slew Geryon and brought the cattle to Mycenae.
In the garden of the Hesperides, there was a tree which bore golden apples. An ever wakeful dragon guarded the tree, and it was aided in this task by the Hesperides, fair nymphs who were the daughters of mighty Atlas. The eleventh task set to Hercules was the bringing in of these apples. Hercules set forth to find the garden and encountered many difficulties on the way. First, he struggled with Antaeus, a wrestler almost as powerful as Hercules himself. Antaeus would not allow him to pass,  unless the two first met in a trial of strength. Now all of the challenger’s strength was derived from Earth, who was his mother, and each time that Hercules threw Antaeus to the ground, he sprang up with renewed energy. Then Hercules guessed his secret, and held him off the ground and strangled him to death. Hercules was then advised to go to Libya and induce Atlas to help him acquire the golden apples. He told Atlas about the labor he was compelled to perform, and begged him to go and get the apples for him. Atlas who bore the world on his shoulders replied, “This I will do, if you will relieve me of my burden while I am gone.” Then Atlas carefully shifted the world from his own shoulders to those of Hercules. In spite of his care, buildings shook and fell down as the great globe trembled. Atlas returned with the apples and Hercules brought them to Eurystheus.
During the course of one of his journeys Hercules became a slave to Queen Omphale in Libya, whom he served for several years. She compelled him to dress like a woman and do woman’s work, such as weaving and spinning. Finally, Hercules had to descend to Hades or Hell to bring back the triple-headed dog, Cerberus, the dog who watches the gates of Hades. When Hercules finally encountered this creature, he quickly caught it by the throat and subdued it. He then appeared before Pluto, the god of the under-world, to ask permission to carry the conquered dog to the upper world. This request Pluto granted and Hercules brought the dog to the palace of Eurystheus and presented it to the king.
About this time, Hercules was attracted by the beauty of Deianira, princess of Aetolia, who was also loved by the river god, Achelous. Hercules fought with the god, killed him, and won his prize. As he was carrying her home, they came to a wide river. On its bank stood the Centaur, Nessus, who offered to carry the young bride on his back. Hercules agreed, but no sooner did Nessus reach the middle of the stream than he tried to violate the chastity of Deianira. She screamed in fright and Hercules, still on the shore, shot an arrow at the Centaur. Nessus could reach the other bank, but there he fell dying on the ground. With his last breath, he told the girl to take a scarf she was wearing and dip it in the blood flowing from his wound. Then he told Deianira that if Hercules should ever cease to love her, she was to extract the blood from this cloth and dip some garment of Hercules in it, and his love for her was sure to return.
Deianira kept this love charm a secret, until one day she heard that her husband was in love with the beautiful maiden Iole. She did now as Nessus had advised, and when Hercules put on the shirt which she had prepared, a poison began to burn deep into his body and the tortured giant knew now that he was dying. Thus his own wife killed him by mistake. Women should beware of jealousy.
The story of the Trojan War, a bloody conflict, is immortalized by Homer in his Iliad. It is the story of war which raged of ten years and it had its origin in a quarrel between the Olympian gods. Eris, the goddess of Discord, was once not invited to a banquet. When the merry-making was at its height, Eris threw a golden apple into the dining hall, and the following words were written on it. “For the Most Fair”. Many claimed the prize, but finally three contestants remained. Venus and Juno and Minerva claimed to be the most beautiful of all. Zeus (Jove) suggested that the three contestants travel to Mount Ida, where young Paris, son of Priam, the king of Troy, was guarding some flocks for his father. He was an excellent judge of feminine beauty, and would award the apple to the most fair.
So, there appeared before him the three goddesses and explained to him their purpose. Juno promised to make him the ruler of vast and rich kingdoms. Minerva promised him military victory against the hated Greeks. But Venus, understanding best a young man’s heart, offered him the fairest woman in all the world. To Venus, therefore, he gave the golden apple.
The fairest woman in all the world promised to Paris was Helen, daughter of Zeus (Jove) by the beautiful Leda. Menelaus was chosen as her husband and had thus obtained both a beautiful queen and the rich kingship of Sparta. Venus directed Paris to the home of the happy couple, where he was hospitably received. But when Menelaus left on a journey, Paris carried Helen off to Troy. Menelaus prepared his forces to wage war on Troy. A thousand ships were ready but no favorable winds did blow. Calchas, the prophet, then prophesied that some goddess had been offended by Agamemnon, brother to Menelaus. A sacrifice, therefore, must be made to please the goddess. It was decided that Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, must be so sacrificed. This was so harsh a demand that all Greece was terrified. Agamemnon himself brought his daughter to the sacrificial altar, and the goddess was pleased by the sacrifice, and a favorable wind began to blow.
Ten hundred ships now moved towards Troy. For ten long years, this war was waged and neither side had any great advantage. The Greeks then began to fight among themselves because Achilles was unwilling to give up Briseis, a beautiful young captive, who had been earlier awarded to him. At last Achilles agreed to give him up, but announced that he would fight no longer in the war and would return to Greece. The gods and goddesses took sides and many a battle was won through Olympian intervention. Juno and Minerva naturally fought against Troy and Paris. Apollo helped both sides, varying his support from time to time. Zeus remained for the most part impartial and aloof, although on occasions he too made his power felt.
After Achilles retired to his tent, the Trojans attacked and forced the Greeks back to the shores where their ships were anchored. Then the Greeks knew that they needed Achilles, and Ulysses and Ajax went to inform the great warrior that Agamemnon had at last consented to return Briseis to him. But Achilles was adamant. The Trojans were again successful in the next day’s battle, and won their way to the shore and set fire to many of the Grecian ships. Achilles still remained behind in his tent. The closest and dearest friend of Achilles was Patroclus. When Achilles learned that Patroclus had been slain by Hector, his rage was terrible. Then he hastened to the field seeking vengeance. When King Priam looked down from the city walls, he saw his forces driven back to the gates, which he ordered should be quickly opened. Hector alone would not pass through the gates and remained outside the city to meet his sworn enemy. With his family and many of the survivors watching from towers and battlements, the two great leaders finally met in mortal combat. Hector was at last killed. Achilles took a strong rope and tied it to the feet of his vanquished foe. Then he fastened the other end to his chariot and dragged the body of dead Hector back and forth for all to see.
Peace might have come once again to Greece and Troy, for Achilles had seen and fallen in love with Polyxena, daughter of King Priam. This happened during the period of truce allowed for Hector’s burial. Achilles visited the temple of Apollo to arrange for the marriage, when Paris, never a brave man, saw the great warrior and without warning shot a poisoned arrow at him which pierced his heel, the only part of Achilles which could be wounded. His mother had dipped him, when he was an infant, into the river, Styx. She had to hold him by the heels, which remained the only place where the waters could not work their magic. The idiom ‘Achilles’ heels meaning “the weak point of a person”, comes from this story.
After the death of Achilles, the war continued. Ulysses finally thought of a way to bring the war to an end, also to gain victory for his side. He caused to be constructed a huge wooden horse which was hollow and capable of housing a hand of armed men. On a dark night the Greeks took the horse before the gates of the city of Troy and left it there, as a gift for the Trojans. They then pretended to have given up the war and set sail. They did indeed take to the ships but anchored only a short distance away in a sheltered nook invisible from Troy’s towers. As Ulysses had foreseen, the Trojans took the horse through their gates. During the night, Ulysses and his men stole from the belly of the horse, overpowered the few guards and opened the city’s gates. The Greek Forces had meanwhile sailed back into port and in a few hours the city was sacked and burnt, and the long war for Helen was over.
When the war of Troy was over, the Greeks set sail for home. Great storms arose, sent by Neptune, the sea-god. The fleet was scattered and many a Greek sank forever in the black and angry sea. Ulysses survived and could return home but not before he had wandered for ten long years, far from Ithaxa, his homeland, and his loved ones.
The great storm which arose and dispersed the Greek fleet lasted for nine days and when it subsided, an island was sighted by Ulysses and his few surviving companions. It was the island of the Lotus-eaters, a plant which when eaten results in complete loss of memory. Ulysses managed to get his crew away from the strange island, but with great difficulty. Tennyson’s Lotus-eaters is based on this adventure.
The ship next reached the land of the Cyclops, giants with only one eye, which was placed in the middle of the forehead. These giants lived in caves and spent most of their time guarding the flocks on which they fed. Ulysses and some of his men began to explore the island. They reached one of the caves, the home of the Cyclops, Polyphemus. They were happy on finding so rich a stock of food, when Polyphemus suddenly returned, driving a large flock before him. With greatest ease he rolled an immense rock in front of the cave’s door and Ulysses and his frightened men knew that all their efforts would never be able to move it. When Polyphemus had milked the goats and ewes he happened to roll his eye around and saw for the first time that he had visitors. He asked them who they were and whence they came.
Ulysses stood up as spokesman and told of the Trojan War, and with great humility, begged that he and his men be allowed to go. Polyphemus answered by grasping two of the men, throwing them against the cave wall, dashing out their brains, and then devouring them, limb by limb. Then he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. Ulysses would have attacked him but knew that if they did succeed in slaying the Cyclops, he and his men would be prisoners forever in the sealed cave. In the morning Polyphemus breakfasted off two more of the band, rolled the rock from the opening to allow himself and his flocks to go out, and then sealed it up again. When he was gone, the crafty Ulysses planned his revenge and escape. That evening the giant again killed and began to devour two of his men. Ulysses and a group of his most daring followers approached him and offered him a jug of wine which they had carried with them from the boat. Polyphemus tasted it and found it good. He announced that as a reward for this delicious drink, Ulysses would be the last to be eaten.
During the time that the Cyclops had been out with his flocks, Ulysses had a great log cut, formed a sharp point at one end, and concealed it in the rear of the cave. When he fell into a sleep deepened by wine, the men heated the point of the log in a fire which they had made, until it was hot and glowing like a burning coal. Then Ulysses lifted it and placed the point in the giant’s single eye. They twisted the log until the eye was completely burned out. His horrible screams of rage and pain filled the cave and the men rain to its corners to be out of reach of the blinded Cyclops. In the morning, Polyphemus stood at the entrance to the cave, having rolled the stone away only far enough to let the cattle pass through. He felt each creature as it went by, to make sure that no human being escaped. But Ulysses had ordered his men to guide the flock to the door in groups of three abreast. Clinging to the under-side of each middle cattle were his surviving companions. As soon as they had all escaped, Ulysses being the last, they rushed to their boat on the shore and sailed away.
They came next to the island of Circe, an enchantress and daughter of the Sun. Ulysses ordered a scouting party to investigate the land before the entire party disembarked. Now Circe was a witch who lured men to her rare beauty. She entertained them lavishly and bade them sup with her, but as soon as they ate her food, they were transformed into animals of various kinds, retaining only their human minds, but in all other respects being as the beasts of the fields and forests. The group of men reached a palace which was located in the centre of the island. Circe appeared and bade them welcome. But Eurylochus, their leader, was suspicious and remained outside. Circe conducted the men to an impressive banquet hall and served them with wines and tempting food. But when they had eaten, she touched them one by one with her magic wand, and they were transformed into beasts. Then the horrified Eurylochus hurried back to the ship to tell Ulysses of the fate of his men. Ulysses determined to go alone and attempt single-handed to rescue his companions. On the way he met a youth of godlike beauty, who announced that he was Mercury and had come to aid Ulysses. He gave him a special herb which, once he had eaten at it, would protect him from any harm.
Circe greeted Ulysses as she had greeted his men, and entertained him in the same rich manner. But when she touched him with her wand, no transformation took place. Instead, Ulysses drew his sword, rushed upon her and threatened to kill her unless she immediately released all the prisoners from their beastly shapes. Then the terrified Circe, restored all the men to their human forms. The rest of the company now came ashore, and a great celebration was held. Circe fell in love with Ulysses, and he and his companions found life on the island exceedingly good. Soon they had forgotten home, family, the horrors of the war and their many trials. But even with this pleasant way of life, with its luxuries and pleasures, they were at last fed up. Their thoughts turned once more to the sea and adventure. Circe reluctantly helped them with the preparations and also warned them of the dangers which awaited them, and told them how to escape them.
First, there were the Sirens, a species of sea nymphs, who could charm with their songs all mariners who sailed nearby. It was said that sailors hearing their singing would throw themselves into the sea in their mad desire to join such sweet singers. Ulysses ordered all his men to fill their ears with wax, so that they would be deaf to the Sirens’ song. He then asked his companions to tie him to the mast, and not to unbind him even if he ordered them to do so. when they sailed past the rocks where the Sirens dwelt, so alluring was the music which Ulysses alone could hear, that he struggled and almost broke his bonds. But his men heeded not his orders, and after a while, no further sound of singing was heard and Ulysses was unloosed from his bonds. Thus they escaped the sirens.
Circe had also warned them that there was grave danger in sailing between the twin perils of Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla lived high on a stony promontory rising out of the sea. Being equipped with six heads on long necks, she could reach out towards a passing ship and devour the helpless mariners in a fearful manner. Close by was the other danger, the whirlpool Charybdis, which sucked ships and all aboard it. Although Ulysses had been forewarned and managed to steer away from the whirlpool, he could not successfully evade the bestial Scylla. The boat came just close enough to permit her to stretch out her serpentine necks and devour six brave men. Thus we get the famous idiom “between Scylla and Charybdis”.
The story of the adventures of Ulysses is told by Homer in his Odyssey.
It was after facing these and many other such adventures that Ulysses at last reached the Island of Ithaca, his home and his kingdom. His wife Penelope had waited patiently for his return home, and had rejected all suitors who wanted to marry her. His son, Telemachus, also remembered his father, and had been making franting efforts to find him out. Now at last the husband was united with the wife, and the father with the son, and there was merry-making all over the island.
But adventure was in the very blood of Ulysses, and he could not stay at home for any length of time. The call of the sea was too powerful for him. So, he gave up his kingdom to his son Telemachus, collected his sailors and faithful companions, and set sail never again to return home.
This sailing away of Ulysses from Ithaca is the subject of Tennyson’s well-known lyric Ulysses.
In the beginning there was no world and no universe of sun, moon and the stars, as we know it. There was only a formless and fathomless void, known as chaos, full of a violently whirling mass of matter and gas. It was absolutely dark. On the upper part of it was Heaven, the abode of God, his Son, and His Angels. On the lower end of Chaos, there was Hell, a dark desolate and dreary place, full of burning, sulphurous matter.
God in Heaven declared His Son, Christ, as His Successor. This aroused the envy of Satan or Lucifer, one of the most powerful of the angels. He questioned the right of Christ to the throne. The result was a civil war in Heaven, in which Satan and his companions were defeated and hurled into Hell to suffer eternal damnation and torture there.
Soon after the War in Heaven, God created the ordered Universe or Cosmos, out of Chaos. This was earth, fitted with the sun, the moon and the stars. A part of this newly created earth called the Garden of Eden or paradise, was given to Adam and Eve, the first Man and the first Woman, as their Home. In Paradise, the first ancestors of men were free to enjoy all bliss. There was only once restraint on their freedom. They must not taste the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, the Tree of Knowledge.
Satan in Hell came to know of the Earth, and of the newly created race of man. He decided to have his revenge upon the Almighty by bringing about the fall of man. He appeared to Eve in the guise of a snake and tempted her to taste the Forbidden fruit. Eve, in her turn persuaded Adam to taste the fruit. This was the original Sin committed by Man, and it brought about his downfall. Adam and Eve were turned out of Paradise and mankind became subject to disease, suffering and death. This Original Sin is at the root of all human suffering. Man must suffer and thus atone to God for the sin of his grandparents. Man’s suffering will end only when Christ would be re-born on earth, suffer for the sake of Man, and thus atone to God for his sins.
This Biblical myth of the original sin and the Fall of Man forms the basis of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The possible regeneration of Man through the self-sacrifice of Christ is the theme of his Paradise Regained.
Samson was an Israelite. He was so powerful that single-handed he could route the Philistines several times. Once he could derive away their armed hosts with an asse’s jaw-bone as his only weapon. His strength lay in his hair. The Philistines were much amazed at his prodigious strength and wanted to know its secret.
Unfortunately, Samson was tempted into marriage by a beautiful Philistian woman, Delila. First, she persuaded Samson to tell her the secret of his strength, and secondly, when she knew this secret, she betrayed it to his enemies. Not only that she cut his hair and thus he was shorn of his strength. His enemies could easily capture him and make him a prisoner. He was blinded and kept in a dungeon where he was made to do hard, menial work. But in course of time, his hair grew and his strength returned. During an annual celebration, he was taken to the temple where all the Philistines were assembled. He pulled down the temple over their heads, and thus destroyed his enemies, as well as himself.
Eversince Delila has been the symbol of feminine seductions and feminine treachery. This Biblical legend forms the basis of Milton’s drama Samson Agonistes.
The legend of the Holy Grail (cup or dish) is a medieval legend associated with the adventures of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The Grail was the cup or plate used by Christ for his Last Supper, in which the blood of the Saviour was collected when he was crucified, it was not long before this holy vessel was discovered to have acquired medicinal and miraculous properties so that it became an object of devotion and worship, and chapels for it came to be built in several countries and its worship was organized. The lance used to pierce the sides of Christ was also kept with it. But a time came when the original Grail disappeared mysteriously from the chapel where it was kept and many a bold Knight staked his life and lost it in the arduous task of searching for it. Tennyson treated this theme as the final of his Idylls of the King, making Sir Galahed, the immaculate knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, as the leader destined to succeed in this holy mission. In other versions appearing subsequently in Germany and France, however, the searcher or the Quester is Sir Perceival or Parsifal.
It is said that in the course of their hazardous quest, Parsifal, the Quester, and his fellow-adventurers, happened to arrive in a country ruled over by a prince named Fisher King. It was one of the regions where Grail worship had been anciently in vogue, and a temple, known as Chapel Perilous, still stood there, broken and dilapidated, as a mournful memorial of what once was, but later had ceased to be. It was said that the lost Grail was hidden in this chapel. At that time the King himself had become a physical wreck, maimed and impotent, as a result, it was whispered, of a sin committed by his soldiery in outranging the chastity of a group of nuns attached to the Grail chapel. The impotency of the Fisher King was reflected sympathetically in the land of which he was the head and the ruler. It had become dry and barren, the haunt and home of want and famine. The King, however, was waiting with hope, despite his illness, that one day the Knight of the pure soul would visit his star-crossed kingdom, march to the Chapel Perilous, answer questions and solve riddles. This would be followed by a ritual washing of his, King Fisher’s, sinful body, which would purge it and renew its health and energy. It was also hoped that this rebirth of the king would be followed by the life-giving rains to the parched land and the thirsty kingdom, which would once more enjoy its earlier fertility.
This legend of the Holy Grail forms the mythical background to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Oedipus, king of Thebes, unwittingly kills his father and marries his own mother and thus calls down upon his supposedly innocent head the curse of the gods in the form of a virulent plague, epidemic and destructive, which neither King nor commoner fails to regard as a punishment for some dark and hidden crime. Tiresias, the blind prophet of the king, is summoned and when compelled by the Kings tells the shocking truth that he, the King himself, is the plague-spot. Unknowingly, he has married his own mother and thus committed the sin of incest. Such is the conspiracy of circumstances that the King is slowly, but irresistibly, driven to the realization of this horrible truth. Nothing remains for the king but the duty of expatiation, self-mutilation, self-exile, self-abasement and a prolonged penance, which eventually result in spiritual calm and inner illumination.
Tiresias is bi-sexual; he is blind but has the gifts of prophecy and immortality. Various stories are given to account for these characteristics. According to one story, this wise Thebian soothsayer in his youth once saw the goddess struck him blind but since his mother was a friend of hers, she bestowed upon him the gift of prophecy as a compensation. According to another story, Tiresias saw two snakes copulating and disturbed them with his stick, and the snakes in wrath transformed him into a woman. Seven years later, he again disturbed another pair of snakes copulating, and was transformed into a man once again. Thus he had experiences both as a man and a woman. Later on, he was questioned by Jove and Juno as to whether Man is more passionate or Woman. He declared that woman is more passionate. At this Juno was angry and struck him blind, but Zeus or Jove compensated him by conferring upon him the twin gifts of prophecy and immortality.
Tiresias, both of the past and the present, is the central figure in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Freud’s theory of Oedipus complex or mother-fixation is named after King Oedipus.

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