LLR Books

Oedipus to Helen of Troy: Ten of the greatest classical myths

By ROBIN LANE FOX, Historian, author and fellow of New College, Oxford

From Oedipus killing his father and making love to his mother, to why Narcissus fell in love with his own image to Helen's romantic triangle which sparked the Trojan War, here historian ROBIN LANE FOX chooses his favourite mythological tales


1. OEDIPUS Oedipus committed his family crimes in error. His father had abandoned him as a baby and so when he killed a stranger at a crossroads near Thebes, it was only later he realised that the stranger was his father

Oedipus committed his family crimes in error. His father had abandoned him as a baby and so when he killed a stranger at a crossroads near Thebes, it was only later he realised that the stranger was his father

Oedipus killed his father and made love to his mother. Freud applied this story to explain what he saw as basic urges in every boy’s unconscious. Hence the Oedipus complex. In fact, Oedipus committed his family crimes in error. His father had abandoned him as a baby, but he was brought up safely by a shepherd in the hills. He returned as a young man and killed a stranger at a crossroads near Thebes. Only later did he realise that the stranger was his father. He then entered Thebes and married Queen Jocasta without knowing she was his mother. So the ancient Oedipus was not driven by an Oedipus complex; he made dreadful mistakes in ignorance.


The poet Ovid says Narcissus was being punished for his rejection of pretty young Echo, who wasted away with a broken heart. So the gods made him 'love, but not attain what he loved'


2. NARCISSUS The poet Ovid says Narcissus was being punished for his rejection of pretty young Echo, who wasted away with a broken heart. So the gods made him 'love, but not attain what he loved'

He is the origin of narcissism, the mental disorder Freud named after him. He was the son of a nymph and a river god but he fell in love with his own image, reflected in a pool. The poet Ovid says he was being punished for his rejection of pretty young Echo, who wasted away with a broken heart. So the gods made Narcissus ‘love, but not attain what he loved’. He was then turned into a yellow flower with white petals – the first narcissus. Girls like Echo still ruin their lives for men who can only love themselves.



Tiresias is the one person who knows both sides of sex. 'Of ten parts,' he said, 'men enjoy one only, but a woman enjoys all ten'

3. TIRESIAS

Tiresias is the one person who knows both sides of sex. 'Of ten parts,' he said, 'men enjoy one only, but a woman enjoys all ten'

Tiresias lived to be a very old prophet, skilled in seeing the future. Once he battered two snakes when they were mating, so the gods turned him into a woman as a punishment. He later turned back into a man. He is therefore the one person who knows both sides of sex. ‘Of ten parts,’ he said, ‘men enjoy one only, but a woman enjoys all ten.’ No wonder women are still so reluctant to discuss the truth. TS Eliot names him in The Waste Land: ‘I, Tiresias, the old man, with wrinkled dugs’ who has known everything that couples ‘enact on this same divan or bed’. Tiresias was blinded by the gods for revealing his secret, and the Greeks believed that as a blind man he was able to see the future.

Hyacinthus's blood gave birth to a flower with the Greek letters for 'Alas!' inscribed on its petals. Nowadays another flower is known in his honour as a hyacinth


4. HYACINTHUS Hyacinthus's blood gave birth to a flower with the Greek letters for 'Alas!' inscribed on its petals. Nowadays another flower is known in his honour as a hyacinth

He was such a beautiful boy that the West Wind loved him and so did Apollo, the god of music, the arts and the sun. Apollo once threw a discus while exercising in Hyacinthus’s company. The jealous West Wind is said to have blown the discus off course and made it kill Hyacinthus, who was hardly more than a boy at the time – but the Greek gods had no scruples about that kind of thing. Hyacinthus’s blood gave birth to a flower with the Greek letters for ‘Alas!’ inscribed on its petals. Nowadays another flower is known in his honour as a hyacinth. This spring the Greek myths of Narcissus and Hyacinthus are still to be seen in full beauty in the flowers in our gardens.


When Helen, who was married to the hero Menelaus, ran off with the handsome young Trojan, Paris, her outraged husband cast around for Greek allies and with them declared the Trojan War

5. HELEN OF TROY When Helen, who was married to the hero Menelaus, ran off with the handsome young Trojan, Paris, her outraged husband cast around for Greek allies and with them declared the Trojan War

She had been married to the hero Menelaus but when the handsome young Trojan, Paris, came to call in Sparta, Helen ran off with him instead. The outraged Menelaus cast around for Greek allies and with them declared the Trojan War. Later, when her husband Menelaus broke into the city, he is said to have dropped his sword at the sight of her. Homer in his Odyssey describes her living a solid married life with Menelaus afterwards. She has, however, learned to use a special potion to stop her tears.


The predatory Eos, the Dawn, fell in love with Tithonus and carried him away to heaven

6. TITHONUS The predatory Eos, the Dawn, fell in love with Tithonus and carried him away to heaven. She begged Zeus to grant him the gift of immortality. He did, but she had forgotten to ask for the gift of eternal youth

Tithonus was a Trojan prince but the predatory Eos, the Dawn, fell in love with him and carried him away to heaven. She begged Zeus to grant Tithonus the gift of immortality. He did, but she had forgotten to ask for the gift of eternal youth. So Tithonus became ever older, shrivelling up like a grasshopper. Even now, when day breaks, Dawn is leaving Tithonus’s bed in heaven. The story is that she locked him in a bedroom cupboard and threw away the key in disgust.


Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and love, made Hippolytus's stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. He refused her, so she denounced him falsely in a letter before killing herself


7. HIPPOLYTUS Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and love, made Hippolytus's stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. He refused her, so she denounced him falsely in a letter before killing herself

Hippolytus was the son of king Theseus. As a young man he steered clear of sex and love and thus angered Aphrodite, the goddess of both. She made his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. Hippolytus refused her, so she denounced him falsely in a letter before killing herself. Unaware of the truth Theseus cursed his son and only learned of his innocence too late after Hippolytus had died in the ancient equivalent of a car-crash. Poseidon, the god of earthquakes and the sea, sent a wild bull to kill Hippolytus by overturning his chariot on the road.


Agave was the mother of young Pentheus, who denied Dionysus's parentage. So Dionysus took revenge by driving the women of Thebes out of their wits


8. AGAVE Agave was the mother of young Pentheus, who denied Dionysus's parentage. So Dionysus took revenge by driving the women of Thebes out of their wits

Agave was the mother of young Pentheus, who denied Dionysus's parentage. So Dionysus took revenge by driving the women of Thebes out of their wits. They retreated to the mountains where Pentheus, tricked by Dionysus into believing they had all gone o ff to have group sex, went to watch, but was torn to pieces by his mother and the maddened women. The dramatist Euripides brilliantly describes her being brought back to reality and realising the dreadful truth.


Odysseus, the hero destined to wander for years away from home, passed into the world of Neverland, outwitted the one-eyed Cyclops and avoided temptations such as the sweet-singing Sirens

9. ODYSSEUS Odysseus, the hero destined to wander for years away from home, passed into the world of Neverland, outwitted the one-eyed Cyclops and avoided temptations such as the sweet-singing Sirens

Odysseus was the hero destined to wander for years away from home after the fall of Troy. He passed into the world of Neverland, outwitted the one-eyed Cyclops and avoided temptations such as the sweet-singing Sirens. All the while his virtuous wife Penelope outwitted the many suitors who competed for her hand. Her reunion with Odysseus is a tribute to married love - but he was destined to leave home all over again and would wander to a land some people claim is modern Switzerland.


Typhon stole Zeus's sinews and hid them in a cave but was gradually battered to death across the world and finally buried by Zeus beneath a snowy mountain

10. TYPHON Typhon stole Zeus's sinews and hid them in a cave but was gradually battered to death across the world and finally buried by Zeus beneath a snowy mountain

A huge snaky monster with 50 heads hissing different sounds, Typhon stole Zeus’s sinews and hid them in a cave but was gradually battered to death across the world and finally buried by Zeus beneath a snowy mountain. I have spent many years travelling to find his tracks in the landscapes. In my recent book Travelling Heroes I track Typhon from a cave on the south coast of Turkey to volcanic Ischia and Mount Etna on Sicily. The BBC turned this book into a documentary film, shown last November. It enabled me to go once again to all Typhon’s sites, culminating with the crater of Etna itself. Seeing is believing. As the volcano roared, Typhon seemed no myth to me.

Mesopotamia

"In Sumeria begins the original urban revolution, and the civilizing influence of the city throughout history. The great cities of history were integrally linked to man's uses of water and were, without fail, situated on rivers, lakes, oases, and seashores. ... Sumerian vessels traded long-distance with Egypt via the Red Sea and plied the Gulf and the Indian Ocean at least to the ancient Indus River civilization. ...

"The vital economic activity of the earliest Sumerian city-states, however, was irrigation agriculture. Each had its own farm work gangs comprised of many hundreds of farmers who worked large tracts of land that was owned, rented, or bequeathed by the gods. As in Egypt, coerced labor was done under schedules and regulations set by temple priests, who alone possessed the skills for calculating the changes of season, designing canals, and coordinating mass, collective effort. Thereligious provenance of the priesthood legitimized their taking large shares of the annual harvest surpluses for storage in the temple granaries.

"Violent, unpredictable floods that destroyed waterworks and entire cities were an omnipresent, terrifying menace. Indeed, in Mesopotamian mythology the quasi-divine status of kings and the state's political legitimacy itself sprang from a purifying great flood sent by the gods to obliterate humanity and from whose watery chaos a new world order was born. The region's flood myth centered on a single, forewarned family that survived by building an ark - the progenitor of strikingly similar stories in Hindu mythology and the Noah story in Genesis. ...

"Crops were grown on miles-long earthen embankments set amid the watery plain between the rivers and controlled by a matrix of dams, dikes, weirs, sluices, and ditches. One benefit of this arduous, artificial irrigation was that it permitted year-round, multicrop farming that yielded larger stockpiles than Egypt's single-crop basin system. Yet artificial irrigation also came with a terrible side effect that afflicted civilizations throughout history - salinization of the soil. ...

"Over time, intensive irrigation farming had environmental side effects that undermined its sustainability. It tended to raise the level of groundwater to waterlog the soils, while water's capillary action drew deadly salt toward plant roots. Evaporation, which was especially rapid in hot, arid Mesopotamia, left the telltale crusted salt residue across the once-fertile surface-crop yields fell until finally little at all could grow. Mesopotamian tablets from 1800 BC duly record 'black fields becoming white.' To cope with salinization, the Sumerians shifted production from wheat to more-salt-resistant barley. In about 3500 BC, equal amounts of wheat and barley were being grown in Sumeria. A thousand years later, only 15 percent of the crop was wheat. By 1700 BC almost no wheat was being grown, and yields from both crops had declined by some 65 percent over seven centuries.

"World history is replete with societal declines and collapses caused by soil salinization. ... A second man-made environmental depletion also exacerbated Mesopotamia's agricultural crisis - deforestation. Wherever humans have settled on Earth, they have chopped down trees - for fuel, houses, boats, tools, and agricultural-land clearance - until their habitats were denuded. Many now-barren parts of Mesopotamia, as elsewhere in the neighboring Mediterranean rim, were once luxuriously verdant. Deforestation made landscapes drier and less fertile. It reduced rainfall as well as the capacity of the soil to retain what did fall. More of the fertile topsoil washed away in torrential downpours - a malevolent expression of water's power as history's greatest soil mover, surpassed only by modern industrial man himself."



Author: Steven Solomon
Title: Water
Publisher: Harper
Date: Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon
Pages: 41-44