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Fantasy Influences: Ancient Greek Mythology – Part Two

You can read part one of this series here.

In the last article, I looked at Greek mythology’s influence on fantasy, including the hero’s quest and what he or she might face on it. The hero came up against prophecies, monsters and evil sorceresses, and remained brave and strong throughout. But is there anything to help them on their difficult journey?

Magical Items

Magical items, particularly weapons, are common in a lot of the world’s mythologies. In Greek mythology, magical weapons are not as prominent as they are elsewhere, but there are plenty of magical objects that can provide an advantage for the hero in his or her quest.

Magic Wands
Harry Potter with WandMagic wands are a very common fantasy trope. They belong to fairies, witches, wizards, and all kinds of magical beings. Sometimes they boost a person’s powers and sometimes they contain power of their own.

Hermes’ caduceus and Circe’s wand are probably the first magical wands to appear in Western recorded myth or fiction. Circe used her wand, along with a magical drug, to transform Odysseus’ men into animals. Odysseus was only able to resist its power with the effects of another magical plant, which Hermes guided him towards. Hermes’ caduceus is a golden staff entwined with snakes, with a winged tip. It’s a symbol of messengers, trade and commerce. According to one myth, it has transformative powers, turning the prophet Tiresias into a woman and later back into a man. The caduceus has nothing to do with medicine, but is sometimes mistaken for the staff of Asclepius, god of healing.

Magical Accessories: Shoes, Hat and Bag
When Perseus set off to find and kill Medusa, he was given an assortment of useful items by the gods. These included winged sandals with which he could fly to Medusa, a bag that would safely hold her severed head, an adamantine sword, and Hades’ helm (or cap) of Darkness, which gave Perseus the power to turn invisible.

Sheila with Invisibility CloakObjects that grant invisibility will be familiar to fantasy fans, with Harry Potter’s cloak and the One Ring being particularly famous examples. Hades’ Helm itself makes an appearance in the Percy Jackson series as well as the Dragon Quest video games. Cloaks of invisibility are more common, particularly in fairytales such as The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Frodo’s elven cloak, invisibility items in Dungeons and Dragons, the compound of invisibility in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books (used to create a cloak of invisibility), as well as all the various cloaking devices of science fiction, are other examples of this idea. A cloak of invisibility also appears in Welsh mythology, used by Caswallawn to murder the chieftains.

Although winged sandals are not seen much in fantasy, magical shoes or boots are very common. Enchanted shoes with special powers appear in fairytales, Hermesboots of haste are a common item in games, and seven-league boots are found in stories such as the Discworld books and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Magical bags, like the sack given to Perseus, are another fantasy trope. These often come in the form of a Bag of Holding, and are particularly common in games, where they provide a useful excuse for the player to be able to haul around so much loot. And, of course, who could forget Mary Poppins’ magical bag?

Athena also gave Perseus a reflective shield, which he used to fight Medusa by looking only at her reflection. This allowed him to avoid being turned to stone by her gaze. A similar idea is found in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which Hermione uses a mirror to prevent the Basilisk’s stare from killing her. Even the Basilisk itself has classical origins; it was first described by Pliny the Elder in 79 A.D.

Rings of Power
The ring of power, or magical ring, is a very common fantasy item, made famous by Tolkien’s One Ring in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings. When worn, the Ring turns its wearer invisible. In The Hobbit Bilbo uses it to escape Gollum. In The Lord of the Rings, the Ring is revealed to have much more sinister connections. Although the influence for this clearly seems to come from the Norse Sagas and Wagner’s adaption, The Ring of the Nibelung, One ring to rule them all...the idea of a ring of invisibility actually goes back much further.

In his Republic, Plato tells the story of a man called Gyges who discovers a magical ring on a corpse in a cave. The ring gives him the power to turn invisible when worn. He uses this invisibility to seduce the queen and murder the king, becoming King of Lydia in his place. Plato’s tale has more in common with The Lord of the Rings than just a magical ring. This story, like The Lord of the Rings, is meant to impart a strong message about the misuse of power and the dangers of greed, which seem to these authors to be inevitable weaknesses of man. The story of Gyges questions whether it is only the worry of being caught that keeps a person honest. When Gyges knows that he can get away with anything, he is spurred by jealousy and greed to commit all kinds of immoral deeds. Socrates points out, however, that in doing so Gyges has become a slave to his appetites; he is no longer in rational control of himself. Rather like the One Ring’s affect on Gollum…

The Gods

Zeus by el-grimlockMagical items were not the only help a hero received. They were also often supported by one or more of the gods. The Greek gods were a pantheon of anthropomorphic beings who ruled over the world and controlled the forces of nature, as well as more arbitrary concepts such as love and war. They behaved like humans, capable of loyalty and kindness but more commonly acting selfishly, petulantly and arrogantly towards humans. They squabbled constantly, and involved humans in their petty struggles far more commonly and cruelly than the gods of most other polytheistic religions.

Pantheons of gods can be found in many fantasy books and games, such as the Conan series, D&D, the Belgariad, etc. Ancient Greek influence seems the strongest where the gods are petty, humorous, or constantly meddling, as in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar series. In some fantasy stories, multiple gods are simply presented as a belief of the people in that world, such as in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. In others, the gods are real and their powers are part of the fantasy. Trudi Canavan’s The Age of the Five series is a particularly interesting exploration of what a fantasy world might be like if a pantheon of gods were undeniably real, and interfering in human affairs for their own amusement.

The Hero’s Aristeia…

Ares by GENZOMANOnce the hero has made it to battle, it’s his or her moment to shine. Cue the aristeia. The aristeia is a set of conventions that form the hero’s moment of awesomeness, the big, dramatic proof that this is why the hero is the hero. The best examples of the heroic aristeia can be found in Homer’s Iliad (Greek) and Virgil’s Aeneid (Roman). Here’s what the aristeia usually looks like:

The Arming Scene
a.k.a. Look how shiny my armour is; stand in awe of all my muscles. Thus we get pages describing Aeneas’ shield in detail, and how magnificent he looks with the sun glinting off his helmet like that. This one is common in a lot of genres today, not just fantasy. Think of any superhero ‘suiting up’ moment.

The Speech
This is the bit where the hero stands up and addresses their men, filling them with courage, honour and battle-lust. Once again, this one is very easy to find in any fantasy story with a battle.

Initial Victories
The hero downs a few of the enemy, and appears to be doing rather well.

Thalestris by dashinvaineSetback
The hero is wounded or stopped in some way.

Divine Intervention
A god gives the hero a courage boost or fires up their anger. Sometimes the god or goddess even directly intervenes, usually resulting in a small cut, followed by abject horror at the site of their own blood and a hasty retreat back to Olympus to berate Zeus for letting them get into that mess in the first place. In modern fantasy this role will probably be filled by a faithful companion, and in many cases it is their death that spurs the hero on.

Escalating Victories
The hero, with renewed strength and vigour, cuts a path through the enemy, defeating people left and right as he or she moves towards the opposing side’s hero to do mighty one-on-one battle. In fantasy films, that’s the slow motion bit with lots of swords slicing through midriffs and stirring music.

Simile Time
The two battling heroes are compared to animals, with the type of animal directly corresponding to the hero’s worth. If your opponent is a lion while you’re a particularly angry badger, don’t count on making it home.

Life and Death by HamsterflyThe Kill
The hero kills the opposing hero and the remaining enemy forces fall back in dismay. This scene is very common in modern fantasy, as the reader is usually more invested in certain characters than in the whole army. A good example is the death of the Witch King in The Lord of the Rings, which takes place during a larger battle but is confined to its own little bubble of drama.

Bonus Round #1: Mocking the Loser
This one is much less common in fantasy, but for a modern example see any Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

Bonus Round #2: Loot the Body
The hero will then take his pickings of armour and weapons from the felled enemy hero. This was actually incredibly important to Homeric heroes, who saw their battle booty as their right and a part of their honour. This was their payment, in a sense, for going to war and protecting their people, and for bringing their people glory. Taking a slain enemy’s weapon is often fair play in fantasy, but it is fantasy games that really take this idea to the next level, turning looting into a kind of compulsion.

…And His Fatal Flaw

Pride comes before a fall. This is the lesson most Greek heroes had to learn, and it is something modern heroes are often faced with too. In Ancient Greek mythology, all heroes had a fatal flaw, the one weakness that let them down. This could be a physical defect, such as Achilles’ heel, but more often fatal flaws were psychological.

Icarus by rEyeD33For Odysseus and Daedalus it was excessive pride that got in their way. For Icarus, it was being too hot-headed and not listening to his father’s advice. He flew too close to the sun with wings that were held together with wax. They melted, and he fell to his death. For Bellerephon and Ajax it was hubris – thinking that they could defy the gods – which brought them down. Bellerephon tried to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, but was struck down for his arrogance. Ajax (the Lesser) raped Cassandra in the temple of Athena, at which the goddess was so angry she sent a storm to wreck his ship. Ajax survived by clinging to a rock, and then boasted that not even the gods could kill him. Poseidon promptly drowned him.

Fantasy heroes are often all about the pride. One of the best examples is The Wizard of Earthsea, in which Ged’s impatience and pride causes him to unleash a monster on the world. He spends the rest of the book in pursuit of it, and in the process, he learns that in order to beat it he first has to defeat his own arrogance.

The Sins of the Fathers

Some heroes, however, are just plain unlucky. One evil deed in a family could pass a curse down the generations. Oedipus’ family is one example, and the House of Atreus (the Atriedai) is another. Atreus’ family began with Tantalus, who decided it would be fun to test the gods’ omniscience by cooking his own son and serving him up to them. The gods, needless to say, were a bit disgusted, and they punished Tantalus for eternity in Tartarus (a kind of Hell).

TantalusUnfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Tantalus’ line had terrible luck ever after, leading to the famous King Agamemnon, who sacrificed his own daughter to gain favourable weather for sailing to Troy. Agamemnon’s wife punished him for this by killing him in his bath. This led to poor Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, being informed by the gods that he was honour bound to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother. The only problem; to kill one’s own mother was a terrible crime. Orestes would be defying the gods, or inviting punishment from the avenging Furies, whichever option he chose.

The actions of fathers, mothers, grandfathers, even distant relations, can easily come back to haunt the fantasy hero, too. Just think of everything that sons and daughter have to face because of their parents’ actions in A Game of Thrones and later books.

The House of Atreus myth is even directly referenced in Dune, in which Paul’s family bears the surname Atriedai. They claim that they are descended from Atreus (and Tantalus) himself, and so it would seem that they have also inherited the endless spiral of bad luck and violence.

Science Fiction?

The hero’s journey is over, but there is one more potential influence worth mentioning. The Ancient Greeks may have had a considerable influence on fantasy tropes and ideas, but what about science fiction? In the 2nd century AD, the Greek-speaking Syrian writer Lucian composed what could be considered the first ever science fiction story. In it, the heroes come across a strange island where they are lifted by a giant waterspout and land on the moon. The ensuing action involves alien life forms, interplanetary war, and adventures inside a giant whale. The story is meant as a satire, criticising writing that quotes mythical and fantastical tales as truth.

Title image by GENZOMAN.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Mark says:

    Very nice article, lots of interesting information.

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