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Category Archives: The Race of Myths

Sappho and Phaon

She is the reason we have the word “Lesbian”.

Sappho of Lesbos is one of the most notorious poets who ever lived and it is not unreasonable to say that she invented the language of love.

But much as we might like to tout her as a same-sex icon and prop her on the rainbow throne, the only actual cohesive love stories we have about Sappho are about her relationships with men. Her most famous lover is Phaon.

If I were a storyteller from antiquity or a cheap Hollywood screen-guru, the next thing I would say is that I am about to tell you how it really happened, the true story of Sappho and Phaon. As it is, I am unfortunately too much of an academic for that. So instead, I will simply say that this is my version.

Sappho got into some trouble in her youth. She got wrapped up in a rebellion against Pittacus, who was tyrant of Lesbos, probably because she was taken with fellow-poet Alcaius, who was one of the ringleaders. When the rebellion failed, they all fled to Lydia, on the West Coast of Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. There, Sappho was eventually found by her parents (one of them, anyway—sources seem to agree that one parent died, but don’t agree which one) who forced her into a marriage with a man named Cercylas of Andros. It seems quite certain this name was a fabrication of later times, as it literally translates to “Prick from the Isle of Man”.

On the crossing back from Lydia, though, Sappho met a man named Phaon. He was not of noble birth like she was, in fact he was the lowly ferryman driving her boat, and he was old, much older than she, but the kindest man she had ever met. When her husband took her away with him to Syracuse across the Mediterranean and made her bear him a daughter (named Cleïs after Sappho’s own mother), Sappho never forgot the kindness that Phaon had showed her. Then one day, when her marriage was in its tarnished middle years, a young man—a very young man—came to her town and started to flirt with her. He introduced himself as Phaon.

“But how could that be?”

Well, he explained that he had ferried Aphrodite herself across the strait while she was disguised as an old woman and she had rewarded his legendary kindness by granting him a second youth. So now, as a young man again, he had decided to use this gift to the fullest and seek out that young woman who had stolen his heart all those years ago.

At first, Sappho thought having Aphrodite’s gift bestowed on him might have washed away all of Phaon’s kindness, but upon contrasting his behavior with that of her husband, she decided to allow herself to be seduced—though the seduction was not without its surprises.

Finally, Cercylas did catch his wife in the act with this other man, this significantly younger man. Enraged, Cercylas drew his sword and ran the boy through—only to discover that it wasn’t a boy. As it turns out, Phaon had actually died and his granddaughter Cydro had assumed his identity in order to seek out the beautiful lady from that day.

So in the end, it turns out that wasn’t a man at all for the love of whom Sappho flung herself from the white cliffs. So now, let them both rest in rainbows at last.

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Romeo and Juliet Reunited

JULIET: Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou come? Whither hast thou taken me? Were we not dead, before?

ROMEO: I had thought we were. I thought you dead—

JULIET: I thought you banishèd—

ROMEO: Banished were as good as dead, to be parted from your side—

JULIET: Nay, say not so.

ROMEO: That is quite enough said, methinks. Indeed, we cannot say too little in this paradise.

JULIET: Yet how can this paradise be? Romeo, my husband, you took poison—

ROMEO: And you did die of a broken heart.

JULIET: No, I didn’t. Romeo… Friar Lawrence ought to have sent out a letter.

ROMEO: What letter?

JULIET: I was to be married to Paris.

ROMEO: That villain. I slew him, too.

JULIET: Slew Paris?

ROMEO: Ay, he was a rogue and arrant knave and a fool to boot.

JULIET: Why?

ROMEO: He was guarding your tomb.

JULIET: They knew that you would come back. Romeo, I drank no poison. The draught Friar Lawrence brought me was a sleeping cure that forged death before tempering it with dreamless sleep. Yet perhaps I did dream. Perhaps we’re dreaming still.

ROMEO: It matters little now, my Juliet, my wife. Whatever place this is, do you detect the torment of our houses’ war? Do you hear your mother’s painful drone, your father’s tirades, or my father’s woes?

JULIET: I do not. And yet methinks I saw Tybalt here.

ROMEO: The prince of cats.

JULIET: My cousin, husband, and yours.

ROMEO: I came with nothing but love and yet he killed my friend. My friend and the prince’s cousin. And therefore am I banished.

JULIET: Didst not slay him?

ROMEO: He killed Mercutio.

JULIET: Didst not kill thyself?

ROMEO: You were dead. How was I to go on?

JULIET: I, too, killed myself for thee. You left me no poison, yet you left me with a bare bodkin to make my quietus. The untrod depths of hell, I suppose, held no more terror for me than the world I live in. A world where my husband could die after killing my cousin. A world so unjust, where my own father would force me to marry a man I did not love because the man I did… And what of this world? Is this world as cruel? I saw a fool over yonder who spoke of an English King and his tragedy. I’ve seen Romans and Greeks. Oh, Romeo. My sweet, sweet, Romeo…

ROMEO: Perhaps we’ve made it after all, our stars un-cross’d, our lives uninterrupted by the spectre of—

JULIET: Don’t speak. Oh, my Romeo. Methinks there’s yet more to this mystery.


The Empress of Lost Souls

I am in love with a ghost.

It’s not a superficial thing, I promise. If it was, I would’ve fallen in love with the picture of her that hung in my high school’s German classroom where I sometimes took exams. I almost did fall in love with her, then, there was something so haunting about the way her endless hair cascaded down the sheer dress, and her whistful look. I thought she was beautiful, but beautiful too look at wasn’t enough to incite me to intrude so much as to ask for her name.

It was in Vienna that I finally fell in love with her, and it happened almost instantly. I found a biography of her in the bookshop of one of the musea; I wish now that I could remember which one—it wasn’t Schönnbrunn, not yet. I saw the front cover with another of the dazzling pictures of her that I’d seen all over town the last couple of days. But what caught my eye about it this time was the title: L’impératrice anarchiste. Which means exactly what it sounds like: The Anarchist Empress.

I was smitten. I bought the book immediately and read it on the public transportation, at dinner, at the hotel. What is it about that juxtaposition, the conflict, that draws us?

She had been in love with the Emperor, it seemed, at the time, as a fifteen-year-old, she just didn’t want to marry him because she didn’t want to be the Empress. And nobody else wanted her to be Empress, either. She was too rough, too country.

She did try to please. For a while. She gave him three children pretty close together—took three tries to get the boy, but by the time she did, the firstborn was taken off by a fever. She wasn’t allowed to raise the other two after that, but several years later she had another one just for herself.

One thing occurred to me as I was reading it, though, that gave me pause, and I only became more convinced of it as I read other sources that seemed to confirm it: despite her romantic nature, I think it’s quite possible that my love, my dear, sweet Empress, had no sexual desires at all.

I mean, obviously she had had sex, there was no other way for her to have had children at the time. But the primary sources claim it took three nights after the wedding for the bedsheets to be stained, and while there are other less flattering theories for why that might have been the case, it makes a compelling case against her enthusiasm in the bedchamber.

Later on, she became somewhat more outspoken in her disdain for men and in what we must call her twilight years, she even hooked her husband up with the actress who would continue to be his mistress for the rest of his life. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing she would encourage if she had been wanting to engage in the kinds of activities she was rumored to have engaged in, which would have been so much less acceptable for her.

It seems absurd particularly considering how revolutionary she was. Not anarchist, per se. Not explicitly. But certainly a Democrat in the last pure monarchy. A Catholic who stuck up for the Jews around the time and in the country where Hitler was born. An Austrian who liked the Hungarians so much she averted war by becoming their Queen. She was also sympathetic to the Italians, which is why it’s so tragically ironic that she should have been the one noble to fall victim to the madness of a fellow anarchist, who drove a nailfile into her aorta just because she was obviously of noble birth.

She might not have been the best role model, she had her faults. But her spirit lingers, waifish, wafer-thin, a hunger in her eyes not to be touched, but deeper, to have her story told, as she lingers at my bedside and hovers over my desk.


Rhodopis

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Rhodopis who grew up at a brothel in Egypt and happened, purely by accident and through no fault of her own, to become the most beautiful woman in the world.

Even before the status was official, Rhodopis’s life was not easy. She had a great many sisters—or at least women who lived in her household—who did not care for her, mostly because they were jealous (though some were just generally unpleasant). Once her beauteous fate was sealed, though, she had the added burden and danger of being the most-desired of all her “sisters” by their owner.

She often thought of running away, but wasn’t sure how.

One day, as she was bathing by the sea, a bird swept in and stole her shoe. How tasty that shoe must have been in the bird’s beak, that he carried it miles and miles over Nile-watered lands before he arrived at the house of the Pharaoh and dropped the shoe in his lap.

What happened next would strain credulity. It isn’t entirely understood, but for elusive reasons, the Pharaoh of Egypt fell in love with this single shoe—

No, hang on—is that really a thing? Because it seems a couple of steps past “unlikely” that the King of Egypt would fall in love with what couldn’t have been much more than a sandal. Was it the shape of it? The size? The smell, still lingering despite being hurled through the air? Was it the time of day or the circumstances? Was the Pharaoh lonely or lamenting the idea that he wasn’t allowed to choose his own wife? We don’t know and a part of us is starting to wonder if this shouldn’t have been a story called “That Time the King of Fucking Egypt Fell in Love With a Fucking Shoe.”

But that is not this story. This is a story that’s meant to be about the woman who owned that shoe, and what happened to her after she lost it—isn’t it? What happened to her? Was she upset about losing her shoe? Was she made fun of? Was the brothel owner who liked her just a little too much disappointed? Did he punish her?

We don’t know. All we know is that the Pharaoh sought out throughout the land of the other shoe—or perhaps for the foot that fit it—and that he found her and married her: the perfect fairy tale ending.

But how? And why? And with whom? Were there trials? Tribulations? How exactly did the Pharaoh find her? Did he put out a personals ad with a picture, or go door-to-door through his own kingdom the old-fashioned way?

How long did it take him, and what did Rhodopis suffer in the meantime? To whom could she turn? When he found her at last, what condition did he find her in? Who was the biggest threat to her, the other girls who hated her or the owner who liked her just a little too much?

All we are told is that she and the Pharaoh lived happily ever after.


The Sacking of Sidon

Larissa could not be said to have a happy life. She would not say herself that she lived an unhappy life (because that would be disrespectful), but she would not disagree with the assessment.

The same could be said of any of the women of Sidon. Husbands came home drunk and abusive, sons went off to war and never returned, even if they did survive. And fathers–fathers wanted nothing to do with their daughters, who were only, after all, a burden. Wasn’t it enough if they sold them to a good husband?

And Larissa’s was no different. When she was younger, she had loved a boy, Iphicles, a shepherd boy, who had been kind to her. But under pressure from his friends–other boys, as always–his kindness had turned. And he hadn’t come back from the wars.

So far, Larissa had resisted all male advances, at least where marriage was concerned. Her father was good enough to leave her Hymen’s final choice. Her virginity, on the other hand–well, she was a servant girl, after all, and one could only expect so much, she sighed, from the nobler men in the way of propriety.

Then, one day, a Trojan ship landed in the harbor. It was just on its way back from Sparta on some sort of ritual quest and bore one of the Trojan princes, Alexander (although, for some reason, he preferred to be called “Paris”). He was a dashing young man, ever so polite and deferent (at least on the surface of things). But Larissa reminded herself in his presence that all men were the same.

Still, it was hard not to notice the way he acted around the woman who was with him on his arm. Her name was not given out publically, so she was referred to as “The Greek Woman”; yet even without a name, she had an aura of power no one in all of Sidon had ever seen, at least not in a woman. Not just in her beauty, but in the way that she carried herself. In the way that she acted with such confidence, so like a man, and still always wearing that look of adoration in beholding her Prince.

There were whispers in the hallways. This wasn’t just any Greek woman this Alexander, or Paris, had carried off. He had stolen Helena of Sparta from Menelaos–there would be war, it was certain! There was an air of excitement, then, about the city and the hall, though nothing was uttered near the honored guests directly. Would the Spartan King come for his bride? Would he meet them there? No, no, the older people assured the young, war would not come to Sidon—the Greeks had been waiting for years for an excuse to sack Troy, this “Paris” had just been stupid enough to give them one.

But then, on the second night when they were feasted once more by Sidon’s king, the question of hospitality was broached. How could they truly welcome a woman into their house if they did not know her name?

It was at that moment that fate took an awful turn. Once Helena confessed that she had indeed left her husband, every man in Sidon rose in anger, hurling accusations, some at the Trojan Prince, but not nearly as many as were hurled at the woman herself for having abandoned the man whom the very Gods had chosen to thrust upon her.

Helena deftly dodged their every ridiculous insult, giving a passionate speech herself on the whys and the wherefores and arguing time and time again that women should be allowed to choose their own fate for themselves, not to mention the man who shared their bed.

But the men of Sidon would have none of it. These men were proud. Though their women had begun to think, to possibly even become inspired, their men had stopped thinking and so gave their actions over to their stomachs, which had been turning over and over at the very thought of letting their wives make these kinds of decisions.

They rose up in anger, encroaching upon her, but the men of Troy, with Paris their leader, stood in their way to protect the new prize. And the women of Sidon were confused, their sisterly affection warring with their better sense when it came to their husbands. So, in utter dismay, Larissa watched with her Sidonian sisters as each and every son of Sidon fell to a Trojan sword. At the end, Paris stood in the banquet hall, a fleeting glint of remorse preceding a sigh of relief as he turned to the women and smiled. “Now you are free,” he told them. “Just as my Helen is free from her terrible husband’s yoke, so you are all free of the oppression these men have laid on you for your entire lives.”

There was a moment of silence, tense, when hardly one of them could breathe, and then a deafening roar of pain and rage, of pulled hair and torn clothing, from the mouths of every woman of Sidon. Some had the strength to hurl themselves head-first into the sea, or off the battlements onto the jagged rocks, dashing their brains out, screaming the names of their husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.

Paris stood in confusion and looked back at Helena in her shock. “I don’t understand,” he complained. “These men were horrible to you. They treated you worse than cattle, worse even than Menelaos treated Helena here. How can you not be happy now that you’re free of them?”

“You fool!” cried Larissa in response. “It doesn’t matter how they treated us; whatever they did, we loved them. They were our husbands, our fathers, our brothers, our sons. We had to love them. No matter what they did to us, their crimes could not compare to yours. No matter how we hated them, we will always hate you more for taking them from us.”


Not to Bury Caesar

MARK ANTONY:
Friend, Roman, Countryman, lend me your hand.
I come not to bury you, but in honesty and faith.
How long has it been since we met in the field at Philippi?
No, not met, for I did not see you there alive.
Did you know I buried you? I insisted it be done in state,
For such is the esteem I hold you in, dear Brutus.
Come, let us be enemies no longer in this strange place.
So many faces have I seen here strange to me.
Such names, as Mercutio, and Iago, and Goneril.
A host there was praised the deeds of some Fifth Henry
And lamented the weakness of a Sixth.
One man I met, a madman, claimed to be Emperor of Rome,
One “Saturnine”—have you heard such foolishness?
Like a King, only greater—can one man rule Rome?
Yet perhaps, at my passing, Octavian did it.
But say, my honorable Brutus, how have you fared?
These nine years in Elysium, have you found comfort?

BRUTUS:
Nay, Antony, mock me not so. No such years have passed!
Days, maybe, that I have wandered these troubling shores.
No doubt that Octavian made quick work of you—
I know thou canst not boast of nine years without me.

MARK ANTONY:
I’ll call my comrades in arms to witness,
If ever yet I find them more. But speak you true?

BRUTUS:
As true as the blades that pierced that purple robe i’th’Senate.

MARK ANTONY:
Hold thy tongue, for I have substance yet enough,
I warrant, in this place, to rip it out.

BRUTUS:
How can nine years pass so without notice?
Are clocks such baseless things? Such rude mechanicals?

MARK ANTONY:
There’s strange play afoot here. Mark you,
There is politicking about, as that dread Henry
Seems to be on the move…

BRUTUS:
Can there be power after death? Ah, woe’s the Gods.

MARK ANTONY:
I’ve seen no Gods here yet.

BRUTUS:
No Gods? Are we not, then, Gods ourselves,
That we live on after dying?

MARK ANTONY:
What hubris, this?

BRUTUS:
Will not men walk on Earth as Gods?
Is not that Roman policy, since Caesar’s triumph?

MARK ANTONY:
Still that self-same insolence, ingratitude—

BRUTUS:
And wilt thou slay me now again?

MARK ANTONY:
No, gentle Brutus. You’ve offered only words now.
Our slates are clean, no need to wash them with our bloods.

BRUTUS:
Yet there’s thy sword, all bared. Why bear it?

MARK ANTONY:
There may be bears yet in these woods.
And if there’s one, I’ll wear it.


The Race of Myths

Joseph Campbell identifies three characteristics of Myth that typify the effect they have on human beings and define their purpose.

The first is that they keep us from dying by reassuring us that all life comes from death and we must therefore feed on it to survive.

The second is that we must procreate, so that the species and, specifically, the tribe, can survive beyond us.

The third is to codify how we as a society should interact with other societies and their respective Myths.

The first two are obviously ways for the Myth itself to keep being told: both the individual and the society must persist in order to perpetuate the Myth in question. But the third is rather a reflection of the second on the Myth itself: the interaction of different societies is the main way Myths have to procreate.

Myths are alive, by the way, in case you hadn’t noticed.

But the weird thing about this interaction is that it doesn’t specify how the Myths will interact with each other. Quality #1, above, is basically “Kill or be killed”, quality #2 is essentially “Make up and make love,” but quality #3 could go any which way. How do Myths interact with each other?

Sometimes they’re polite and unobtrusive, sometimes they’re social and amenable, but sometimes we find there are Myths who are cruel and sollipsistic, Myths who insist that they—and only they—are Truth. They preserve their immortality by refusing to procreate, as though, like Zeus, they remember how they killed their own father and refuse to have the same done to them.