30 Jan 2008
There are two women in Greek mythology who intrigue me - Ariadne and Medea. Despite being quite different characters, they have some similarities. They both were princesses who betrayed their kingdoms and their fathers for the love of a foreign prince. They were both considered “outsiders” in the Greek world. And they both were probably vestigial memories of older local goddesses. Ariadne was Cretan, of course, and the legends of Crete predate the mythology of the Greek mainland. The beautiful mysteries of Minoan civilization, with the cryptic tales of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, hark back to something very old. So she comes from this primal ancestry. Tradition gives her blonde hair, rare among her people, which marks her out all the more as a “white goddess”. When Theseus arrives on Crete to slay the Minotaur, Ariadne does not hesitate to aid him. Her father Minos was an evil sonuvabitch, and she had no qualms about betraying him for this exciting stranger. Traditional accounts of her story usually do make it sound like nothing more than teenage rebellion. But something much more profound is going on here - the symbolism of the Greek Theseus, winning the Cretan goddess. After he slays the Minotaur and then Minos himself, he flees the island with Ariadne. Their departure, and the death of the Minotaur, is marked by a massive earthquake which destroys most life on the island. This is an ancestral memory of the cataclysm that desolated ancient Crete, allowing the Greek mainland to become the centre of civilisation. But all the love stories of Greek mythology end badly (so why do we call them myths, hah-ha). This one is a great example, and the reason I’ve always had a fascination for the story. After helping her boyfriend to destroy her whole kingdom and make off with her, Ariadne naturally expects a wedding as-soon-as and they’ll go back to Athens. But Theseus has a major problem. He slew the Minotaur, who was Ariadne’s half-brother (oh that’s a ghastly story). Marrying Ariadne would, thereby, make the beast his half-brother in law. And that would make Theseus a kin-slayer - the most hated criminal in that universe. The Furies would descend upon him and tear him to shreds. Realising this, Theseus left her with her bridesmaids, probably made some comment about “popping to the shop for some olives”, then took off in his ship. That’s traditionally where poor Ariadne was left. But this ending was too bleak even for the old Greek poets, and they gave her a second chapter. Left weeping on Naxos, our blonde princess is discovered by none other than Dionysius. If you were a lonely, heartbroken girl, I think the sudden appearance of the “god of good times” come to rock your world would be pretty welcome. Titian summed it up beautifully in this famous painting of 1523: Does that party look awesome, or what. “Check it out babe”, Dionysius is saying; “we got leopards, snakes, mutant sex freaks, and me - a flying dude in pink chiffon. Ma say ma sa, ma ma coosa!” And Ariadne’s all like, “Theseus who?”. Accounts of her death vary, but her ultimate fate has always haunted me. I can’t remember the source, so you’ll have to trust me on this one. When she finally arrived in Hades, she received an unusual punishment for her immoral lifestyle. She would spend eternity forever coming out from washing her hair. She would be cursed to repeat the same loop forever; leaving her bathroom, wrapping a towel around her hair, and entering her bedroom. Over and over and over again. This was considered a minor punishment - she got off lightly because her father was a judge of Hades. Medea’s story is even more grim. She’s probably the original wicked stepmother, providing the template for future archetypes. Whenever the old Greek stories needed an evil woman, they rolled out Medea. She was like Joan Collins in a black toga. Being a decidedly foreign element, she was considered a fitting villain in the xenophobic realms of the old stories. But her lasting legacy has been a dark and vibrant one - there is Euripides’ play “Medea”, which either celebrates or condemns her, depending on your viewpoint. She also provided a popular subject for artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites, who loved her fatal beauty. (This is an 1889 study of her by Evelyn De Morgan, the leading female Pre-Raphaelite. I love how it makes her look like a model in Cosmo advertising a perfume, rather than a poisoner on her way to murder someone. Note the dead birds she tested her poison on in the background) Medea came from Colchis, which is roughly western Georgia in modern terms. In the traditions of her homeland, she is a heroine and figure of great stature; the Greek legends - which our modern perceptions of her are exclusively based on - are considered propaganda and lies. Like Ariadne, a Greek hero (Jason) comes to her land on a sacred quest - to recover the Golden Fleece. This fleece was from the sacred ram Chrysomallos, who later became the starsign Aries. The legends all weave together like a tapestry; and as a proud Aries I have always been fascinated by this story - it’s why our starsign is at the top of the list. So there is an old, pre-Greek basis to this story. It quite possibly symbolises the links between the first Greek explorers and the peoples of Colchis. Like Ariadne, Medea helps her foreign prince to overthrow her father - although Colchis is not destroyed like Crete. Medea’s bloody adventures begin the moment she leaves her kingdom. Having grabbed the sacred Fleece, Jason, Medea and crew frantically sail away. Medea’s father sails in hot pursuit - but she has a nasty plan to stop him. She hacks her brother (who was accompanying her) to death, and throws his parts into the ocean, knowing her father will stop to recover the body and thus lose the pursuit. Note that this bit not qualify her as a kin-slayer; the Greek morality did not apply to her. Also, she was - in most stories - a worshipper of Hecate, wronged described by some as the “goddess of witches”. Hecate protected her worshippers from any blood-guilt. Anyhow, I reckon once Jason saw his fiancée dismember her brother, he should have pulled a Theseus. But a lovestruck man will not see reason, and he decided to marry Medea and take her back to meet his folks. And she did prove useful on the trip back. But when the happy couple arrived back at Jason’s home of Iolcus, Medea decides to get rid of her annoying father-in-law, and tricks his daughters into butchering him. The whole thing kind of backfires, and she and Jason flee. Having finally decided he’s had enough of her, Jason promptly abandons Medea for another woman. But this time, the hero doesn’t get away so easy. Medea kills their children in anger and bitterness. This is what burns her into the modern mind, again largely thanks to Euripides. The horror of a mother destroying her children, and the state of mind she would be in to do it, are Medea’s ultimate legacies. She kinds of fades in and out of the stories, after that point. Her most notable appearance after Jason features our old friend Theseus. Years before the Minotaur, Theseus presents himself to his father, King Aegeus of Athens. And whaddaya know! This old man has found himself a hot young wife from the east called Medea. This is her main, and defining, appearance as wicked stepmother. Medea is disturbed greatly by Theseus’ arrival, hoping to plant her son by Aegeus on the throne. She offers Theseus a poisoned drink, but the gods had forewarned him; he knocks it to the ground and exposes Medea’s evil. She takes off again, into the dark recesses of Greek mythology. Her ultimate fate is unknown; she became too powerful a figure to disappear entirely. I suppose the old stories never do their subjects justice in the end. Consider how history and the movies just don’t go together. They are also antithetical. The historical facts always get in the way of a good story, while movies are all about showing people what they want to see. So the two narratives of history and moviemaking have very different approaches to “truth”. (As much as anything in either realm is ever “true”). Whenever history is brought to the big screen, it has to conform to commerciality - that fatal, creativity-killing “bottom line”. Now I like history, and I like movies. I reckon they could get on a lot better if there was more to it than just selling tickets. But moviemaking doesn’t work like that, so there’s really no room for pedantry. A director will make their movie the way they like, and history can (and usually does) get lost. The need to create something modern and relevant has always seen the facts recast to suit the zeitgeist. Besides, throughout history, good guys usually lose. That doesn’t make for a good movie. Also, many historical figures do not qualify as “hotties”; but no leading actor or modern audience seems prepared to accept an ugly cast. Unless they’re gunning for an Oscar. Of course, history itself is always rewritten to meet modern tastes. We change our views on the past, based on current opinions and prejudices. Film reflects this accordingly. What bothers me most is that movies are pretty much the only way many people learn their history. There’s no shortage of information about historical inaccuracies in movies. Some film nerds seem to devote their lives to pointing out such shortcomings. As nerds are wont, they often go too far. But I feel their overall point is valid. If you’re a history buff, it’s hard to watch a film on a familiar subject without often thinking “what the fuck?”. Sometimes these points are just quibbles - the wrong coloured socks, say. This sort of complaining is just prattle, of a nit-picking kind. But sometimes the changes seem to defeat the whole purpose of the production. For example, the 1998 movie “Elizabeth” contained a scene staggeringly at odds with the historical record. The celebrated Mary, Queen of Scots, is depicted as having been poisoned by spymaster Walsingham after a night of vigorous rumpty-pumpty. Her naked corpse is shown strewn, a la Monroe, across the bed in a laughably gratuitous scene. Actually, “laughably gratuitous” pretty much sums up that movie. Anyway, this bizarre episode is akin, in modern terms, to something like this : Princess Diana actually died after being poisoned by Osama bin Laden, shortly after they had a great dinner followed up by a fabulous shag. O RLY? There is no mention at all of Mary’s years of imprisonment in England, or the complicated plots that were dreamed up to bring her down. There was a period of twenty years between Mary’s capture by the English, and her eventual execution. That execution is so well-recorded, and such a fundament of British history, that the events shown in “Elizabeth” blow the mind. Any connection to ANY kind of historical legitimacy is lost. And this is the point I want to make : if you’re going to change the story so much, why bother with fact? Why not just move the whole thing to the 31st century, redo Elizabeth as Jurangor, Queen of Venus, and do some fantasy sci-fi shit? It would be a damn sight more plausible than rewriting history just so you can show a naked dead chick. The final insult? In 2007 a sequel was produced, where - in a retcon unworthy of the crappiest comic - Mary was right back there again. Basically, they were just making it up as they went along. This is Elizabethan history, not fucking “Lost”. I haven’t seen this movie, I don’t think I could take it. Anyway, it’s been done better by people who actually cared. You know you could talk about the gaps between legend and reality? Those two guys who were crucified next to Jesus. They are named, in apocryphal Catholic tradition, as Dismas and Gestas. I doubt these guys even existed; my theory is that they were added to the Gospels as a symbol of the “good angel” and “bad angel” concept. But then, I am the product of a very warped Catholic education and a Gnostic re-education, so I got heresy breaking out all over the place. The story goes that they’re up there with Jesus, and looking at a slow and horrible death. Gestas, the Unrepentant Thief, curses JC and taunts him : if you’re such a miracle worker, why not get us the hell out of here? (“If thou be Christ, save thyself and us”) Dismas, the Repentant Thief, curses Gestas back, saying they had more reason to be there than Jesus. (“Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss”) Then passes two of the most beautiful lines in the Gospels (Luke 23:42-43): “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Normally I prefer the Gospel of John, for it’s poetry, but Luke was the journalist. He caught the details. As a writer I think those lines have a real punch. In Catholic tradition, Dismas became a saint, and a patron of criminals and the condemned. He symbolised the beg for mercy. There’s no mention of Gestas after his one big line. He sidles off somewhere with Medea, to lurk in that void of forgotten people who probably never existed. Speaking of such unfortunates, here’s a really creepy link to finish. A few months back I blogged on the legends of lost cosmonauts. A recording made by an Italian radio station around 1961 would seem to prove that the Soviets sent a female cosmonaut into space at least a year before Gagarin’s flight. This would make her the first person in space. It would also make her hideously unlucky; if the recording is genuine (and I actually think it’s a clever fake) then she burned up on re-entry. Have a listen, see what you think.
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- ▼ January (13)