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H entries
Hades (1) (HAY-deez). God of the dead, ruler of the Underworld, which was accordingly known as Hades. In various adventures, Hades abducted the maiden Persephone, tricked the heroes Theseus and Peirithous and managed to get himself handcuffed by Sisyphus.
The god Hades was a dread figure to the living, who were quite careful how they swore oaths in his name. To many people, simply to utter the word "Hades" was a frightening proposition. So they made up a euphemism, a word that meant the same thing but with a more pleasant sound.
Since all precious minerals came from under the earth (the dwelling place of Hades) and since the god was wealthy indeed when it came to the number of subjects in his kingdom of the dead, he was referred to as "Ploutos", wealth. This accounts for the name given him by the Romans, who called Zeus Jupiter, Ares Mars, Hermes Mercury and Hades Pluto.
Hades (2) (HAY-deez). Realm of the dead, either underground or in the far West of the world known to the early Greeks – or both. Named for the god Hades, its ruler.
As is not surprising, the ancient Greeks did not know what to expect after death. Notions of the afterlife were various and conflicting. Some thought that great heroes lucked out by traveling to the Elysian Fields, where they could hunt and feast and socialize in pleasant company for eternity, while commoners were consigned to a lifeless and boring abode in the Fields of Asphodel. First they'd drink the waters of Lethe, which caused them to lose all memory of their former lives and thus lack anything to talk about.
In its earlier depictions, the underworld kingdom of Hades was such a dank and dark and moldering place that were it laid open to the heavens, the gods themselves would turn away in disgust.
Harpies (HAR-peez). Razor-clawed, smelly birds with the faces of women, who defiled the food of King Phineus of Salmydessus. The king was so grateful to the Argonauts for ridding him of these pests that he suggested a means by which Jason and his shipmates might avoid being crushed to death by the Clashing Rocks.
Hector (HEK-tor). Trojan prince. Hector was more noble than the prideful Achilles, the champion of the Greeks besieging Troy in the Trojan War. But Achilles was the better fighter, and he easily defeated the Trojan in single combat. Achilles dragged Hector's body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Hector was avenged by his brother Paris with the help of Apollo.
Helen. Spartan princess, wife of Menelaus. Helen's elopement with (or abduction by) Paris caused the Trojan War. She was memorialized in a famous phrase of the poet Marlowe as the face that launched a thousand ships. When still a child, she was abducted by Theseus and rescued by her brothers, the Dioscuri.
Helle (HEL-ee). Theban princess saved from sacrifice by a golden flying ram. Becoming dizzy on the animal's back, she fell into the sea. The ram flew on to Colchis, where its fleece was hung in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon. This was the Golden Fleece quested after by Jason and the Argonauts.
Hellespont (HEL-es-pont). Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean. Legendarily named for Helle, who had been saved from sacrifice by a flying ram and had fallen off the animal's back into this body of water. The ram's fleece was later hung in a grove and guarded by a dragon. This was the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.
Hephaestus (he-FESS-tus or he-FEE-stus). Roman name Vulcan. God of fire and crafts or the two together, hence of blacksmiths, Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera or, in some accounts, of Hera alone. He limped because he was born lame, which caused his mother to throw him off Mount Olympus. Or in other accounts he interceded in a fight between Zeus and Hera, and Zeus took him by the foot and threw him from Olympus to the earth far below.
Hera (HEE-ruh or HER-uh). Roman name Juno. Hera was the goddess of marriage, the wife of Zeus and the Queen of the Olympians. Enemy of Heracles, she sent snakes to attack him when he was still an infant and later stirred up the Amazons against him when he was on one of his quests. On the other hand, Hera aided the hero Jason.
In Greek mythology, Hera was the reigning female goddess of Olympus because she was Zeus's wife. But her worship is actually far older than that of her husband. It goes back to a time when the creative force we call "God" was conceived of as a woman. The Goddess took many forms, among them that of a bird. Hera was worshipped throughout Greece, and the oldest and most important temples were consecrated to her. Her subjugation to Zeus and depiction as a jealous shrew are mythological reflections of one of the most profound changes ever in human spirituality.
Tens of thousands of years ago, as the evidence of cave art and artifacts makes clear, humanity was focused on the female body, either pregnant or fit to bear children. Childbirth was the closest humans came to the great power that caused the earth to bring forth new life in the spring. To the extent that these distant ancestors of ours were evolved enough to think of worshipping this power, we may safely conclude that they thought of it as female.
Thousands of years later (and some five to nine thousand years before our own time), the European descendants of these people lived in large villages, with specialized crafts and religious institutions. It is clear from the artifacts they left behind that they worshipped a power (or a group of powers) that came in many forms - a bird, a snake, perhaps the earth itself. And this great power was female. For the human female has the ability to procreate - to bring forth new life.
It is said that it was only when humanity discovered man's role in procreation that male gods began to be worshipped. There is no reason to doubt, though, that male gods were worshipped before the mystery of birth was fully known. In all probability the greatest powers were thought of as female but there were male deities as well. And it is clear that even after procreation was properly understood, the more peaceful Europeans - perhaps down to the "Minoans" of Crete - continued to worship the Great Mother.
And there were many peaceful Europeans. Many of the largest villages of that distant era were unfortified. The culture known as "Old European" did not fear aggression from its neighbors. But then things changed and a great period of violence began. Invaders swept into Europe from the vast central plains of Asia. They brought the Indo-European language family that today includes French, Italian, Spanish and English. They also brought a sky god, the supreme male deity that in Greek mythology became known as Zeus.
Little is known of these early Indo-Europeans, but the peaceful settlements of Old Europe were no match for them. In some places their new culture became supreme, in others there was merger. Hardier mountain folk resisted, though many were displaced from their strongholds, moved on and displaced others in a domino effect. The Dorian invasion of Mycenaean Greece can be seen as a result of this chain reaction.
The old order seems to have held out longest on Crete where, protected by the Aegean Sea from invasion by land, the high Minoan civilization survived until almost three thousand years ago. Abruptly, then, from the perspective of human existence, the gender of the greatest power changed from female to male. And many of the stories that form the basis of Greek mythology were first told in their present form not long after the shift.
Zeus's many adulterous affairs may derive from ceremonies in which the new sky god "married" various local embodiments of the Great Goddess. That there was some insecurity on the part of the supplanter god and his worshippers is seen in the mythological birth of Athena from Zeus's head - as if to say that the sky god could do anything any Great Goddess could do.
This Goddess continued to be worshipped in some form down into historical times. Her worship is sometimes dismissed as a "fertility cult", largely because religious practices degenerated under new influences. But we may look for traces in the myths of the old order, in which Athena, whose name is pre-Greek, was the Goddess herself.
Under the influence of the Indo-Europeans, this bird goddess became the chief deity of war. Her earlier guise may be glimpsed in her symbol, the owl, which derives from the preceding thousands of years of sacred bird imagery.
Heracles (HER-a-kleez). Roman name Hercules. Heracles was the most famous of the Greek mythological heroes. To make amends for a crime, Heracles was compelled to perform a series of heroic tasks, or Labors. Amongst these were slaying the many-headed Hydra, retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and bringing the hellhound Cerberus up from the Underworld. Heracles was also one of the Argonauts.
Like most authentic heroes, Heracles had a god as one of his parents, being the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zeus's wife Hera was jealous of Heracles, and when he was still an infant she sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. Heracles was found prattling delighted baby talk, a strangled serpent in each hand.
When he had come of age and already proved himself an unerring marksman with bow and arrow, a champion wrestler and the possessor of superhuman strength, Heracles was driven mad by the goddess Hera. In a frenzy, he killed his own children. To atone for this crime, he was sentenced to perform a series of tasks, or "Labors", for his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae.
As his first Labor, Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. This was no easy feat, for the lion's skin was impenetrable by spears or arrows. Heracles blocked off the entrance to the lion's cave and throttled it to death with his bare hands. Ever afterwards he wore the lion's skin as a cloak and its gaping jaws as a helmet.
King Eurystheus was so afraid of his heroic cousin that he hid in a storage jar. From the safety of this hiding place he issued the order for another Labor. Heracles was to seek out and destroy the monstrous and many-headed Hydra.
The mythmakers agree that the Hydra lived in the swamps of Lerna, but they seem to have had trouble counting the monster's heads. Some said that the Hydra had eight or nine. Others counted between fifty and a hundred. And still others claimed as many as ten thousand. All agreed, however, that as soon as one head was beaten down or chopped off, two more grew in its place. Only one of the heads was immortal, but cutting it off was the challenge. To make matters worse, the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints was enough to bring death to an ordinary mortal. Fortunately, Heracles was no ordinary mortal.
The great hero sought out the monster in its lair and brought it out into the open with flaming arrows. Then he made sure to hold his breath while grappling with the beast. Heracles had the strength of ten, but the fight went in the Hydra's favor. The monster twined its many heads around the hero and tried to trip him up. It called on an ally, a huge crab which also lived in the swamp. The crab bit Heracles in the heel and further impeded his attack. Heracles was on the verge of failure when he remembered his nephew.
Heracles had a twin brother named Iphicles. Iphicles took part in a number of heroic exploits but generally remained in the shadow of his illustrious twin. Heracles employed Iphicles' son, Iolaus, as his charioteer. Iolaus had driven Heracles to the swamps of Lerna, and he looked on in anxiety as his uncle became entangled in the Hydra's snaky heads. Finally, Iolaus could no longer bear to stand aside. In response to his uncle's shouts, he grabbed a burning torch and dashed to the fray.
Now, as soon as Heracles cut off one of the Hydra's heads, Iolaus was there to sear the wounded neck with flame. This kept further heads from sprouting. In this fashion, Heracles cut off the heads one by one, with Iolaus cauterizing the wounds. Finally Heracles lopped off the immortal head and buried it deep beneath a rock.
This was not to be the hero's last experience of swamp warfare. A future Labor would pit him against the Stymphalian Birds, man-killers who inhabited a marsh near Stymphalus in Arcadia. Heracles could not approach the birds to fight them - the ground was too swampy to bear his weight and too mucky to wade through. Finally Heracles resorted to some castanets given to him by the goddess Athena. By making a racket with these, he caused the birds to take wing. And once they were in the air, he brought them down by the dozens with his arrows.
In the course of his Labors and afterwards, Heracles accomplished some amazing feats. He once forced the god Poseidon to give way in battle. He wounded Ares, god of war, in another encounter. And he wrestled the great god Zeus himself to a draw. The hero could move mountains that hindered the route of his cattle herd. He could and did toss boulders about like pebbles. He even relieved the Titan Atlas of the burden of holding up the heavens. This came about when Eurystheus challenged him to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.
The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land in the mountains named for Atlas.
Atlas was a Titan, which is to say a member of the first generation of gods, born of Earth. One of his brothers was Cronus, father of Zeus. Atlas made the mistake of siding with Cronus in a war against Zeus. In punishment, he was compelled to support the weight of the heavens by means of a pillar on his shoulders.
Heracles had been told that he would never get the apples without the aid of Atlas. The Titan was only too happy to oblige, since it meant being relieved of his burden. He told the hero to hold the pillar while he went into the garden of the Hesperides to retrieve the fruit. But first, Heracles would have to do something about the noisily vigilant dragon, Ladon.
This was swiftly accomplished by means of an arrow over the garden wall. Then Heracles took the pillar while Atlas went to get the apples. He was successful and returned quickly enough, but in the meantime he had realized how pleasant it was not to have to strain for eternity keeping heaven and earth apart. So he told Heracles that he'd have to fill in for him for an indeterminate length of time. And the hero feigned agreement to this proposal. But he said that he needed a cushion for his shoulder, and he wondered if Atlas would mind taking back the pillar just long enough for him to fetch one. The Titan graciously obliged, and Heracles strolled off, omitting to return.
As his final Labor, Heracles was instructed to bring the hellhound Cerberus up from the infernal kingdom of Hades. Hades was god of the dead. His realm, to which all mortals eventually traveled, lay beneath the earth and was called the Underworld, or Hades, after its ruler. The first barrier to the deads' journey beyond the grave was the most famous river of Hades, the Styx. Here the newly dead congregated as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves, awaiting passage in the ferryboat of Charon the Boatman.
The afterlife, as conceived by the early Greeks, was a grim and gloomy proposition. Although there was no religious dogma on the subject, most imagined that some part of a being lived on after death. What survived, however, was very insubstantial, a ghostly shadow - or shade - of the living being.
The surviving families did their best to provide for these wraiths, sending them off to the Underworld with a bribe for Charon the Boatman, to induce him to ferry them across the Styx to the kingdom of the dead. Here they would live on forever in soulless company - unless, that is, they had been guilty of some egregious sin, in which case they might be punished for eternity by the ruler of the Underworld. The only worse fate, perhaps, might be to lack the toll for Charon and be condemned to wander in lonely desolation on the near bank of the river Styx until the end of time.
The concept of the afterlife was vague and often contradictory. The blind poet Homer, who sang of the Heroic Age, said that the dead passed on to a gray and gloomy realm below the earth, ruled over by Hades. But Homer also spoke of the Islands of the Blessed, located somewhere at the far western edge of the world. Here the greatest heroes went when they died, to live on in comfort and pleasure. In time these two ideas were put together, so that entrance to the Underworld was situated in the west, near where the flat earth dropped off into nothingness. Later still, people began to speak of other entrances to the world of the dead below.
There were two ways to get to the Underworld. The first and simplest was to die. The other way was only open to gods or heroes, who could proceed with caution to Hades' realm via certain natural chasms and caves. The most popular of these seems have been Taenarum in Laconia. This was the portal chosen by Theseus and his companion Peirithous on their ill-fated venture to abduct Hades' queen Persephone. And some say that it was via Taenarum that Orpheus pursued his wife Eurydice when, bitten by a snake, she shared the common fate in journeying to the afterlife below. But others maintain that Orpheus's entrance was Aornum in Thesprotia.
Before becoming a fully fledged member of the godly council on Mount Olympus, the wine-god Dionysus brought his mother up from Hades. She was the heroine Semele, who had been consumed by lightning when she asked Zeus to reveal to her his true nature as storm god. To retrieve her from the Underworld, Dionysus went to Lerna and dove into the Alcyonian Lake, which has no bottom.
In being challenged to bring back Cerberus to the land of the living, Heracles was faced with one of his most difficult Labors. Descending to Hades via Laconian Taenarum, the first problem he encountered was a glowering Charon the Boatman. Charon wasn't about to ferry anyone across in his rickety craft unless they met two conditions. Firstly, they had to pay a fare or bribe. And secondly, they had to be dead. Heracles met neither condition, a circumstance which aggravated Charon's natural grouchiness and caused him to glower more fiercely than usual.
But Heracles simply glowered in return, and such is the perseverance of a proper hero - at least one of Herculean magnitude - that once having set about a task, said hero will not fail to achieve and excel. The task in this instance being glowering, Heracles accomplished it with such gusto that Charon let out a whimper and meekly conveyed the hero across the Styx.
The next and greater challenge was Cerberus himself. The dog had teeth of a razor's sharpness, three (or maybe fifty) heads, a venomous snake for a tail and for good measure another swarm of snakes growing out of his back. When Heracles closed and began to grapple with the hound, these snakes lashed at him from the rear, while Cerberus's multiple canines lunged for a purchase on the hero's throat. Fortunately, Heracles was wearing his trusty lion's skin, which had the magic property of being impenetrable by anything short of one of Zeus's thunderbolts. After a titanic struggle, Heracles got Cerberus by the throat and choked the dog into submission.
Taking care to secure the permission of Hades and his queen Persephone, the hero then slung Cerberus over his shoulder and carted him off to Mycenae, where he received due credit for the Labor. In its grueling nature, the entire adventure was so at variance with the experience of Orpheus that it bears noting.
When Orpheus' wife Eurydice was claimed by Hades for his kingdom of the dead, Orpheus determined to get her back. Journeying to the Underworld by the entrance chasm at Taenarum, he too fetched up on the banks of the Styx. But instead of out-glowering Charon, Orpheus won him over by song. Such was the sweetness of his singing and his strumming of the lyre that not only did Charon willingly submit to ferrying Orpheus across the River of Darkness, but Cerberus, beguiled by the melody, lay down, crossed his paws under his chin and listened entranced.
The mortal status of Greek mythological heroes was subject to varying interpretations. Most heroes were sons of gods, and as such at least semi-divine. But this by no means meant that they automatically got to go to heavenly Mount Olympus when they died. Perseus achieved immortality of a sort by being made into a starry constellation. The Dioscuri, or Hero Twins, were originally accorded a mixed blessing. Polydeuces (Pollux to the Romans) was deemed godly enough to be admitted to Olympus, while his brother Castor was dispatched to Hades as a mere mortal. But Polydeuces interceded on his twin's behalf, on the plea that he could not bear eternal separation. The gods relented to the extent that the two were allowed to remain together forever, spending half the year deep in the earth beneath their shrine in Sparta and the other half on the airy heights of Olympus.
Heracles was the only hero to become a full-fledged god upon his demise, but even in his case there was his mortal aspect to be dealt with. He received special consideration because he had aided the Olympians in their epic battle against the Giants. These titanic sons of Earth had stormed the godly citadel in a hail of flaming oaks and rocks. And the deities of Olympus would never have prevailed without Heracles and his bow. By virtue of his spectacular achievements, even by heroic standards, Heracles was given a home on Mount Olympus and a goddess for a wife. But part of him had come not from his father Zeus but from his mortal mother Alcmene, and that part was sent to the Underworld. As a phantasm it eternally roams the Elysian Fields in the company of other heroes.
Hercules (HUR-kyoo-leez). Hercules was the Roman name of Heracles (see preceding entry), or more precisely the Roman adaptation of the Greek hero of that name. Popular culture construes the names to be synonymous, in the sense that one speaks of the Labors of Hercules, meaning the tasks assigned the hero in Greek mythology. But there may have been a different Italian hero of legendary strength who was mixed with the Heracles brought to Italy by Greek colonists.
Hermes (HUR-meez). Roman name Mercury. A prankster and inventive genius from birth, Hermes was the messenger of the gods and guide of dead souls to the Underworld. He aided the heroes Odysseus and Perseus in their quests.
Hermes was the son Zeus and a mountain nymph. As a newborn he was remarkably precocious. On his very first day of life, he found the empty shell of a tortoise and perceived its utility as a sounding chamber. Stringing sinews across it, he created the first lyre.
Hermes was known for his helpfulness to mankind, both in his capacity as immortal herald and on his own initiative. When Perseus set out to face the Gorgon Medusa, Hermes aided him in the quest. According to one version of the myth, he loaned the hero his own magic sandals, which conferred upon the wearer the ability to fly. Some say that Hermes loaned Perseus a helmet of invisibility as well. Also known as the helmet of darkness, this was the same headgear that Hermes himself had worn when he vanquished the giant Hippolytus. This was on the occasion when the gargantuan sons of Earth rose up in revolt against the gods of Olympus.
Hermes' symbol of office as divine messenger was his staff, or caduceus. This was originally a willow wand with entwined ribbons, traditional badge of the herald. But the ribbons were eventually depicted as snakes. To support this mythologically, a story evolved that Hermes used the caduceus to separate two fighting snakes which forthwith twined themselves together in peace.
It was Hermes' job to convey dead souls to the Underworld. And as patron of travelers, he was often shown in a wide-brimmed sun hat of straw. Hermes was known to the Romans as Mercury. His most famous depiction, a statue by Bellini, shows him alight on one foot, wings at his heels, the snaky caduceus in hand and, on his head, a rather stylized combination helmet-of-darkness and sun hat.
Hero Twins. Heroic Spartan brothers, the Dioscuri, who rescued their sister Helen from Theseus. The Hero Twins also sailed with the Argonauts. Castor was mortal while his brother Polydeuces qualified to be admitted to the godly congregation on Mount Olympus. They are eternally joined in the night sky as a constellation.
Heroic Age. A time, as conceived by the early Greeks of a subsequent era, when individuals unique in courage, strength, and physical beauty performed their exploits. It coincided with the archaeological era called Mycenaean, when kingdoms produced glorious arts and crafts, such as the golden masks found at the site of ancient Mycenae.
Hesperides (hes-PER-i-deez). The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land in the mountains named for Atlas. Heracles retrieved the apples as one of his Labors.
Hestia (HESS-tee-uh). Goddess of hearth, home and family. Hestia was originally one of the twelve supreme gods on Mount Olympus, but she grew tired of the petty intrigues and wrangling that went on amongst the Olympians. So she gave up her position to Dionysus, the god of wine.
Hippodameia (hip-uh-da-MYE-uh). Maiden whom King Polydectes claimed he was going to marry, as a ruse to disguise his intentions toward Perseus's mother Danae. Perseus was asked to provide a gift for the wedding, and lacking any suitable present found himself promising to bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa.
Hippolytus (hi-POL-i-tus). One of the Giants, slain by Hermes. The Giants were monstrous children of the goddess Earth who attacked Mount Olympus in revenge for Zeus's overthrow of the Titans. In the course of the battle, Hermes managed to down Hippolytus. The god prevailed because he was wearing the helmet of invisibility.
Homer (HOH-mur). Traditionally a blind minstrel or bard, who sang or performed to music epic poems set in the Heroic Age. The story of the Trojan War is related in Homer's epic, The Iliad. This nine-year conflict pitted Greek heroes against the city of Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Homer's other great epic, The Odyssey, narrates the homeward journey of the hero Odysseus after the war.
Hydra (HYE-druh). The Hydra was a many-headed monster slain by Heracles. It was related to the Chimaera and Cerberus. As one of his Labors, Heracles sought the Hydra's lair in the swamps of Lerna and forced it out into the open with flaming arrows. Wading bravely into the fray, he began to hack at the monster with his sword. But every time he cut off one head, two grew in its place. Eventually, Heracles called on his charioteer to bring a torch to cauterize the Hydra's severed neck each time a head was lopped. This prevented new heads from sprouting. And when the final head was chopped off and buried beneath a rock, the monster died.
Hylas (HYE-lus). One of the Argonauts, who was pulled into a pool by its nymphs. Hylas was the squire of Heracles, and when he disappeared while gathering firewood for the crew of the Argo, Heracles was distraught. But Hylas was nowhere to be found. He had either drowned or was now living underwater with the nymphs.
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H entries
Hades (1) (HAY-deez). God of the dead, ruler of the Underworld, which was accordingly known as Hades. In various adventures, Hades abducted the maiden Persephone, tricked the heroes Theseus and Peirithous and managed to get himself handcuffed by Sisyphus.
The god Hades was a dread figure to the living, who were quite careful how they swore oaths in his name. To many people, simply to utter the word "Hades" was a frightening proposition. So they made up a euphemism, a word that meant the same thing but with a more pleasant sound.
Since all precious minerals came from under the earth (the dwelling place of Hades) and since the god was wealthy indeed when it came to the number of subjects in his kingdom of the dead, he was referred to as "Ploutos", wealth. This accounts for the name given him by the Romans, who called Zeus Jupiter, Ares Mars, Hermes Mercury and Hades Pluto.
Hades (2) (HAY-deez). Realm of the dead, either underground or in the far West of the world known to the early Greeks – or both. Named for the god Hades, its ruler.
As is not surprising, the ancient Greeks did not know what to expect after death. Notions of the afterlife were various and conflicting. Some thought that great heroes lucked out by traveling to the Elysian Fields, where they could hunt and feast and socialize in pleasant company for eternity, while commoners were consigned to a lifeless and boring abode in the Fields of Asphodel. First they'd drink the waters of Lethe, which caused them to lose all memory of their former lives and thus lack anything to talk about.
In its earlier depictions, the underworld kingdom of Hades was such a dank and dark and moldering place that were it laid open to the heavens, the gods themselves would turn away in disgust.
Harpies (HAR-peez). Razor-clawed, smelly birds with the faces of women, who defiled the food of King Phineus of Salmydessus. The king was so grateful to the Argonauts for ridding him of these pests that he suggested a means by which Jason and his shipmates might avoid being crushed to death by the Clashing Rocks.
Hector (HEK-tor). Trojan prince. Hector was more noble than the prideful Achilles, the champion of the Greeks besieging Troy in the Trojan War. But Achilles was the better fighter, and he easily defeated the Trojan in single combat. Achilles dragged Hector's body behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. Hector was avenged by his brother Paris with the help of Apollo.
Helen. Spartan princess, wife of Menelaus. Helen's elopement with (or abduction by) Paris caused the Trojan War. She was memorialized in a famous phrase of the poet Marlowe as the face that launched a thousand ships. When still a child, she was abducted by Theseus and rescued by her brothers, the Dioscuri.
Helle (HEL-ee). Theban princess saved from sacrifice by a golden flying ram. Becoming dizzy on the animal's back, she fell into the sea. The ram flew on to Colchis, where its fleece was hung in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon. This was the Golden Fleece quested after by Jason and the Argonauts.
Hellespont (HEL-es-pont). Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean. Legendarily named for Helle, who had been saved from sacrifice by a flying ram and had fallen off the animal's back into this body of water. The ram's fleece was later hung in a grove and guarded by a dragon. This was the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.
Hephaestus (he-FESS-tus or he-FEE-stus). Roman name Vulcan. God of fire and crafts or the two together, hence of blacksmiths, Hephaestus was the son of Zeus and Hera or, in some accounts, of Hera alone. He limped because he was born lame, which caused his mother to throw him off Mount Olympus. Or in other accounts he interceded in a fight between Zeus and Hera, and Zeus took him by the foot and threw him from Olympus to the earth far below.
Hera (HEE-ruh or HER-uh). Roman name Juno. Hera was the goddess of marriage, the wife of Zeus and the Queen of the Olympians. Enemy of Heracles, she sent snakes to attack him when he was still an infant and later stirred up the Amazons against him when he was on one of his quests. On the other hand, Hera aided the hero Jason.
In Greek mythology, Hera was the reigning female goddess of Olympus because she was Zeus's wife. But her worship is actually far older than that of her husband. It goes back to a time when the creative force we call "God" was conceived of as a woman. The Goddess took many forms, among them that of a bird. Hera was worshipped throughout Greece, and the oldest and most important temples were consecrated to her. Her subjugation to Zeus and depiction as a jealous shrew are mythological reflections of one of the most profound changes ever in human spirituality.
Tens of thousands of years ago, as the evidence of cave art and artifacts makes clear, humanity was focused on the female body, either pregnant or fit to bear children. Childbirth was the closest humans came to the great power that caused the earth to bring forth new life in the spring. To the extent that these distant ancestors of ours were evolved enough to think of worshipping this power, we may safely conclude that they thought of it as female.
Thousands of years later (and some five to nine thousand years before our own time), the European descendants of these people lived in large villages, with specialized crafts and religious institutions. It is clear from the artifacts they left behind that they worshipped a power (or a group of powers) that came in many forms - a bird, a snake, perhaps the earth itself. And this great power was female. For the human female has the ability to procreate - to bring forth new life.
It is said that it was only when humanity discovered man's role in procreation that male gods began to be worshipped. There is no reason to doubt, though, that male gods were worshipped before the mystery of birth was fully known. In all probability the greatest powers were thought of as female but there were male deities as well. And it is clear that even after procreation was properly understood, the more peaceful Europeans - perhaps down to the "Minoans" of Crete - continued to worship the Great Mother.
And there were many peaceful Europeans. Many of the largest villages of that distant era were unfortified. The culture known as "Old European" did not fear aggression from its neighbors. But then things changed and a great period of violence began. Invaders swept into Europe from the vast central plains of Asia. They brought the Indo-European language family that today includes French, Italian, Spanish and English. They also brought a sky god, the supreme male deity that in Greek mythology became known as Zeus.
Little is known of these early Indo-Europeans, but the peaceful settlements of Old Europe were no match for them. In some places their new culture became supreme, in others there was merger. Hardier mountain folk resisted, though many were displaced from their strongholds, moved on and displaced others in a domino effect. The Dorian invasion of Mycenaean Greece can be seen as a result of this chain reaction.
The old order seems to have held out longest on Crete where, protected by the Aegean Sea from invasion by land, the high Minoan civilization survived until almost three thousand years ago. Abruptly, then, from the perspective of human existence, the gender of the greatest power changed from female to male. And many of the stories that form the basis of Greek mythology were first told in their present form not long after the shift.
Zeus's many adulterous affairs may derive from ceremonies in which the new sky god "married" various local embodiments of the Great Goddess. That there was some insecurity on the part of the supplanter god and his worshippers is seen in the mythological birth of Athena from Zeus's head - as if to say that the sky god could do anything any Great Goddess could do.
This Goddess continued to be worshipped in some form down into historical times. Her worship is sometimes dismissed as a "fertility cult", largely because religious practices degenerated under new influences. But we may look for traces in the myths of the old order, in which Athena, whose name is pre-Greek, was the Goddess herself.
Under the influence of the Indo-Europeans, this bird goddess became the chief deity of war. Her earlier guise may be glimpsed in her symbol, the owl, which derives from the preceding thousands of years of sacred bird imagery.
Heracles (HER-a-kleez). Roman name Hercules. Heracles was the most famous of the Greek mythological heroes. To make amends for a crime, Heracles was compelled to perform a series of heroic tasks, or Labors. Amongst these were slaying the many-headed Hydra, retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and bringing the hellhound Cerberus up from the Underworld. Heracles was also one of the Argonauts.
Like most authentic heroes, Heracles had a god as one of his parents, being the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Zeus's wife Hera was jealous of Heracles, and when he was still an infant she sent two snakes to kill him in his crib. Heracles was found prattling delighted baby talk, a strangled serpent in each hand.
When he had come of age and already proved himself an unerring marksman with bow and arrow, a champion wrestler and the possessor of superhuman strength, Heracles was driven mad by the goddess Hera. In a frenzy, he killed his own children. To atone for this crime, he was sentenced to perform a series of tasks, or "Labors", for his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae.
As his first Labor, Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. This was no easy feat, for the lion's skin was impenetrable by spears or arrows. Heracles blocked off the entrance to the lion's cave and throttled it to death with his bare hands. Ever afterwards he wore the lion's skin as a cloak and its gaping jaws as a helmet.
King Eurystheus was so afraid of his heroic cousin that he hid in a storage jar. From the safety of this hiding place he issued the order for another Labor. Heracles was to seek out and destroy the monstrous and many-headed Hydra.
The mythmakers agree that the Hydra lived in the swamps of Lerna, but they seem to have had trouble counting the monster's heads. Some said that the Hydra had eight or nine. Others counted between fifty and a hundred. And still others claimed as many as ten thousand. All agreed, however, that as soon as one head was beaten down or chopped off, two more grew in its place. Only one of the heads was immortal, but cutting it off was the challenge. To make matters worse, the Hydra's very breath was lethal. Even smelling its footprints was enough to bring death to an ordinary mortal. Fortunately, Heracles was no ordinary mortal.
The great hero sought out the monster in its lair and brought it out into the open with flaming arrows. Then he made sure to hold his breath while grappling with the beast. Heracles had the strength of ten, but the fight went in the Hydra's favor. The monster twined its many heads around the hero and tried to trip him up. It called on an ally, a huge crab which also lived in the swamp. The crab bit Heracles in the heel and further impeded his attack. Heracles was on the verge of failure when he remembered his nephew.
Heracles had a twin brother named Iphicles. Iphicles took part in a number of heroic exploits but generally remained in the shadow of his illustrious twin. Heracles employed Iphicles' son, Iolaus, as his charioteer. Iolaus had driven Heracles to the swamps of Lerna, and he looked on in anxiety as his uncle became entangled in the Hydra's snaky heads. Finally, Iolaus could no longer bear to stand aside. In response to his uncle's shouts, he grabbed a burning torch and dashed to the fray.
Now, as soon as Heracles cut off one of the Hydra's heads, Iolaus was there to sear the wounded neck with flame. This kept further heads from sprouting. In this fashion, Heracles cut off the heads one by one, with Iolaus cauterizing the wounds. Finally Heracles lopped off the immortal head and buried it deep beneath a rock.
This was not to be the hero's last experience of swamp warfare. A future Labor would pit him against the Stymphalian Birds, man-killers who inhabited a marsh near Stymphalus in Arcadia. Heracles could not approach the birds to fight them - the ground was too swampy to bear his weight and too mucky to wade through. Finally Heracles resorted to some castanets given to him by the goddess Athena. By making a racket with these, he caused the birds to take wing. And once they were in the air, he brought them down by the dozens with his arrows.
In the course of his Labors and afterwards, Heracles accomplished some amazing feats. He once forced the god Poseidon to give way in battle. He wounded Ares, god of war, in another encounter. And he wrestled the great god Zeus himself to a draw. The hero could move mountains that hindered the route of his cattle herd. He could and did toss boulders about like pebbles. He even relieved the Titan Atlas of the burden of holding up the heavens. This came about when Eurystheus challenged him to retrieve the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.
The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land in the mountains named for Atlas.
Atlas was a Titan, which is to say a member of the first generation of gods, born of Earth. One of his brothers was Cronus, father of Zeus. Atlas made the mistake of siding with Cronus in a war against Zeus. In punishment, he was compelled to support the weight of the heavens by means of a pillar on his shoulders.
Heracles had been told that he would never get the apples without the aid of Atlas. The Titan was only too happy to oblige, since it meant being relieved of his burden. He told the hero to hold the pillar while he went into the garden of the Hesperides to retrieve the fruit. But first, Heracles would have to do something about the noisily vigilant dragon, Ladon.
This was swiftly accomplished by means of an arrow over the garden wall. Then Heracles took the pillar while Atlas went to get the apples. He was successful and returned quickly enough, but in the meantime he had realized how pleasant it was not to have to strain for eternity keeping heaven and earth apart. So he told Heracles that he'd have to fill in for him for an indeterminate length of time. And the hero feigned agreement to this proposal. But he said that he needed a cushion for his shoulder, and he wondered if Atlas would mind taking back the pillar just long enough for him to fetch one. The Titan graciously obliged, and Heracles strolled off, omitting to return.
As his final Labor, Heracles was instructed to bring the hellhound Cerberus up from the infernal kingdom of Hades. Hades was god of the dead. His realm, to which all mortals eventually traveled, lay beneath the earth and was called the Underworld, or Hades, after its ruler. The first barrier to the deads' journey beyond the grave was the most famous river of Hades, the Styx. Here the newly dead congregated as insubstantial shades, mere wraiths of their former selves, awaiting passage in the ferryboat of Charon the Boatman.
The afterlife, as conceived by the early Greeks, was a grim and gloomy proposition. Although there was no religious dogma on the subject, most imagined that some part of a being lived on after death. What survived, however, was very insubstantial, a ghostly shadow - or shade - of the living being.
The surviving families did their best to provide for these wraiths, sending them off to the Underworld with a bribe for Charon the Boatman, to induce him to ferry them across the Styx to the kingdom of the dead. Here they would live on forever in soulless company - unless, that is, they had been guilty of some egregious sin, in which case they might be punished for eternity by the ruler of the Underworld. The only worse fate, perhaps, might be to lack the toll for Charon and be condemned to wander in lonely desolation on the near bank of the river Styx until the end of time.
The concept of the afterlife was vague and often contradictory. The blind poet Homer, who sang of the Heroic Age, said that the dead passed on to a gray and gloomy realm below the earth, ruled over by Hades. But Homer also spoke of the Islands of the Blessed, located somewhere at the far western edge of the world. Here the greatest heroes went when they died, to live on in comfort and pleasure. In time these two ideas were put together, so that entrance to the Underworld was situated in the west, near where the flat earth dropped off into nothingness. Later still, people began to speak of other entrances to the world of the dead below.
There were two ways to get to the Underworld. The first and simplest was to die. The other way was only open to gods or heroes, who could proceed with caution to Hades' realm via certain natural chasms and caves. The most popular of these seems have been Taenarum in Laconia. This was the portal chosen by Theseus and his companion Peirithous on their ill-fated venture to abduct Hades' queen Persephone. And some say that it was via Taenarum that Orpheus pursued his wife Eurydice when, bitten by a snake, she shared the common fate in journeying to the afterlife below. But others maintain that Orpheus's entrance was Aornum in Thesprotia.
Before becoming a fully fledged member of the godly council on Mount Olympus, the wine-god Dionysus brought his mother up from Hades. She was the heroine Semele, who had been consumed by lightning when she asked Zeus to reveal to her his true nature as storm god. To retrieve her from the Underworld, Dionysus went to Lerna and dove into the Alcyonian Lake, which has no bottom.
In being challenged to bring back Cerberus to the land of the living, Heracles was faced with one of his most difficult Labors. Descending to Hades via Laconian Taenarum, the first problem he encountered was a glowering Charon the Boatman. Charon wasn't about to ferry anyone across in his rickety craft unless they met two conditions. Firstly, they had to pay a fare or bribe. And secondly, they had to be dead. Heracles met neither condition, a circumstance which aggravated Charon's natural grouchiness and caused him to glower more fiercely than usual.
But Heracles simply glowered in return, and such is the perseverance of a proper hero - at least one of Herculean magnitude - that once having set about a task, said hero will not fail to achieve and excel. The task in this instance being glowering, Heracles accomplished it with such gusto that Charon let out a whimper and meekly conveyed the hero across the Styx.
The next and greater challenge was Cerberus himself. The dog had teeth of a razor's sharpness, three (or maybe fifty) heads, a venomous snake for a tail and for good measure another swarm of snakes growing out of his back. When Heracles closed and began to grapple with the hound, these snakes lashed at him from the rear, while Cerberus's multiple canines lunged for a purchase on the hero's throat. Fortunately, Heracles was wearing his trusty lion's skin, which had the magic property of being impenetrable by anything short of one of Zeus's thunderbolts. After a titanic struggle, Heracles got Cerberus by the throat and choked the dog into submission.
Taking care to secure the permission of Hades and his queen Persephone, the hero then slung Cerberus over his shoulder and carted him off to Mycenae, where he received due credit for the Labor. In its grueling nature, the entire adventure was so at variance with the experience of Orpheus that it bears noting.
When Orpheus' wife Eurydice was claimed by Hades for his kingdom of the dead, Orpheus determined to get her back. Journeying to the Underworld by the entrance chasm at Taenarum, he too fetched up on the banks of the Styx. But instead of out-glowering Charon, Orpheus won him over by song. Such was the sweetness of his singing and his strumming of the lyre that not only did Charon willingly submit to ferrying Orpheus across the River of Darkness, but Cerberus, beguiled by the melody, lay down, crossed his paws under his chin and listened entranced.
The mortal status of Greek mythological heroes was subject to varying interpretations. Most heroes were sons of gods, and as such at least semi-divine. But this by no means meant that they automatically got to go to heavenly Mount Olympus when they died. Perseus achieved immortality of a sort by being made into a starry constellation. The Dioscuri, or Hero Twins, were originally accorded a mixed blessing. Polydeuces (Pollux to the Romans) was deemed godly enough to be admitted to Olympus, while his brother Castor was dispatched to Hades as a mere mortal. But Polydeuces interceded on his twin's behalf, on the plea that he could not bear eternal separation. The gods relented to the extent that the two were allowed to remain together forever, spending half the year deep in the earth beneath their shrine in Sparta and the other half on the airy heights of Olympus.
Heracles was the only hero to become a full-fledged god upon his demise, but even in his case there was his mortal aspect to be dealt with. He received special consideration because he had aided the Olympians in their epic battle against the Giants. These titanic sons of Earth had stormed the godly citadel in a hail of flaming oaks and rocks. And the deities of Olympus would never have prevailed without Heracles and his bow. By virtue of his spectacular achievements, even by heroic standards, Heracles was given a home on Mount Olympus and a goddess for a wife. But part of him had come not from his father Zeus but from his mortal mother Alcmene, and that part was sent to the Underworld. As a phantasm it eternally roams the Elysian Fields in the company of other heroes.
Hercules (HUR-kyoo-leez). Hercules was the Roman name of Heracles (see preceding entry), or more precisely the Roman adaptation of the Greek hero of that name. Popular culture construes the names to be synonymous, in the sense that one speaks of the Labors of Hercules, meaning the tasks assigned the hero in Greek mythology. But there may have been a different Italian hero of legendary strength who was mixed with the Heracles brought to Italy by Greek colonists.
Hermes (HUR-meez). Roman name Mercury. A prankster and inventive genius from birth, Hermes was the messenger of the gods and guide of dead souls to the Underworld. He aided the heroes Odysseus and Perseus in their quests.
Hermes was the son Zeus and a mountain nymph. As a newborn he was remarkably precocious. On his very first day of life, he found the empty shell of a tortoise and perceived its utility as a sounding chamber. Stringing sinews across it, he created the first lyre.
Hermes was known for his helpfulness to mankind, both in his capacity as immortal herald and on his own initiative. When Perseus set out to face the Gorgon Medusa, Hermes aided him in the quest. According to one version of the myth, he loaned the hero his own magic sandals, which conferred upon the wearer the ability to fly. Some say that Hermes loaned Perseus a helmet of invisibility as well. Also known as the helmet of darkness, this was the same headgear that Hermes himself had worn when he vanquished the giant Hippolytus. This was on the occasion when the gargantuan sons of Earth rose up in revolt against the gods of Olympus.
Hermes' symbol of office as divine messenger was his staff, or caduceus. This was originally a willow wand with entwined ribbons, traditional badge of the herald. But the ribbons were eventually depicted as snakes. To support this mythologically, a story evolved that Hermes used the caduceus to separate two fighting snakes which forthwith twined themselves together in peace.
It was Hermes' job to convey dead souls to the Underworld. And as patron of travelers, he was often shown in a wide-brimmed sun hat of straw. Hermes was known to the Romans as Mercury. His most famous depiction, a statue by Bellini, shows him alight on one foot, wings at his heels, the snaky caduceus in hand and, on his head, a rather stylized combination helmet-of-darkness and sun hat.
Hero Twins. Heroic Spartan brothers, the Dioscuri, who rescued their sister Helen from Theseus. The Hero Twins also sailed with the Argonauts. Castor was mortal while his brother Polydeuces qualified to be admitted to the godly congregation on Mount Olympus. They are eternally joined in the night sky as a constellation.
Heroic Age. A time, as conceived by the early Greeks of a subsequent era, when individuals unique in courage, strength, and physical beauty performed their exploits. It coincided with the archaeological era called Mycenaean, when kingdoms produced glorious arts and crafts, such as the golden masks found at the site of ancient Mycenae.
Hesperides (hes-PER-i-deez). The Hesperides, or Daughters of Evening, were nymphs assigned by the goddess Hera to guard certain apples which she had received as a wedding present. These were kept in a grove surrounded by a high wall and guarded by a dragon named Ladon, whose many heads spoke simultaneously in a babel of tongues. The grove was located in some far western land in the mountains named for Atlas. Heracles retrieved the apples as one of his Labors.
Hestia (HESS-tee-uh). Goddess of hearth, home and family. Hestia was originally one of the twelve supreme gods on Mount Olympus, but she grew tired of the petty intrigues and wrangling that went on amongst the Olympians. So she gave up her position to Dionysus, the god of wine.
Hippodameia (hip-uh-da-MYE-uh). Maiden whom King Polydectes claimed he was going to marry, as a ruse to disguise his intentions toward Perseus's mother Danae. Perseus was asked to provide a gift for the wedding, and lacking any suitable present found himself promising to bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa.
Hippolytus (hi-POL-i-tus). One of the Giants, slain by Hermes. The Giants were monstrous children of the goddess Earth who attacked Mount Olympus in revenge for Zeus's overthrow of the Titans. In the course of the battle, Hermes managed to down Hippolytus. The god prevailed because he was wearing the helmet of invisibility.
Homer (HOH-mur). Traditionally a blind minstrel or bard, who sang or performed to music epic poems set in the Heroic Age. The story of the Trojan War is related in Homer's epic, The Iliad. This nine-year conflict pitted Greek heroes against the city of Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey. Homer's other great epic, The Odyssey, narrates the homeward journey of the hero Odysseus after the war.
Hydra (HYE-druh). The Hydra was a many-headed monster slain by Heracles. It was related to the Chimaera and Cerberus. As one of his Labors, Heracles sought the Hydra's lair in the swamps of Lerna and forced it out into the open with flaming arrows. Wading bravely into the fray, he began to hack at the monster with his sword. But every time he cut off one head, two grew in its place. Eventually, Heracles called on his charioteer to bring a torch to cauterize the Hydra's severed neck each time a head was lopped. This prevented new heads from sprouting. And when the final head was chopped off and buried beneath a rock, the monster died.
Hylas (HYE-lus). One of the Argonauts, who was pulled into a pool by its nymphs. Hylas was the squire of Heracles, and when he disappeared while gathering firewood for the crew of the Argo, Heracles was distraught. But Hylas was nowhere to be found. He had either drowned or was now living underwater with the nymphs.
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