Leo MR [Patreon cultist] asks:

So in the course of researching Heracles (particularly the Laomedon episode) I learned that Hera, Poseidon, and Apollo once tried to rebel against Zeus and had him chained (?) but Zeus was freed by Thetis, Achilles’s mother (?!) and then Poseidon and Apollo were punished by Zeus to work in Troy for a few years under human disguises (???) What the Hades was this whole story about and how did it come to be?! I tried looking up more details online but could only find a scant handful of information; do you know anything more about it?

Y’know, I think that is basically the entire story (although I think the business with Apollo and Poseidon working for Laomedon at Troy is a separate issue; the rebellion Thetis helped to stop involved Athena, not Apollo). I’ve only ever encountered it as part of the backstory of the Iliad, and it is there… well, pretty much because Homer needs a reason to have Zeus owe Thetis a favour. This is the memory she invokes when she goes to Zeus in Iliad I and asks him to punish Agamemnon for disrespecting her son by tipping the scales against the Greeks. If you run into the story outside of that context… yeah, you’re absolutely right, it’s bizarre! I don’t think there are any other references to it anywhere in Greek literature – I mean, there are texts I haven’t read and mythology isn’t really my specialty, but if there’s something else out there dealing at length with a rebellion against Zeus among the Olympians, it’s hella obscure. Most scholars working on Homer today think that the epics were originally produced by bards through oral composition-in-performance – that is, “Homer” (who wasn’t a real person, unless he was; readers who are new to my bull$#!t about this should Google “the Homeric Question”) made it up as he went along, knowing the broad strokes of the plot from centuries of tradition, but improvising on a lot of the details. And… honestly I think this bit might genuinely have been improv? The poet knows the way the story is supposed to go – Achilles leaves the battle, and the Greeks are met with disaster for the next several days until Agamemnon relents. He may know that this happens because Zeus is in Achilles’ corner on this one. He might not know exactly why Zeus is willing to step in. So… he goes back to what he does know, because it’s a fact of the tradition: Achilles has a divine mother, who presumably would be able to intercede on his behalf. He could narrate Thetis making a persuasive argument, either to Zeus or to a council of all the gods, but for the most part, characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey tend to get each other to do things by invoking existing relationships and outstanding favours, because that’s how politics works in Iron Age Greece. So the poet comes up with a reason why Zeus might owe Thetis something, and because he’s quite clever, he makes it a reason that has some applicability to the current situation: when Zeus’ authority and station were challenged, Thetis upheld them. He should do the same for her son.

I wish I had more, but I think that may genuinely be the beginning and end of this one.

Red Rain asks:

What’s your favorite primordial deity? Mine is Tiamat.

Gotta be Auðumla – the magic cow who formed from the ice of the primordial void at the beginning of time according to the Gylfaginning, the section of the Prose Edda that deals with the creation of the world in Norse mythology.  The exact cause-and-effect of events in this text is a bit tricky because it’s not a straightforward narrative; the stories are presented in a question-and-answer format (also: not my field, haven’t formally studied these texts, don’t know how they work).  Basically, though, there was a great frozen void, and then there was a cow, and the cow said “let there be milk,” and Ymir, the first of the frost giants, drank the milk, and meanwhile the cow survived by licking the ice, which gradually revealed the first of the Æsir gods, Buri (what he was doing frozen in the ice is anyone’s guess).  They don’t make cows like that anymore.

G.T. Waters asks:

Do you by any chance know who were the first people to make use of lighthouses and the symbolism of lighthouses in antiquity?

Genuinely no idea.  I would guess that the concept of a lighthouse – a tall coastal structure (or even just a signal fire on a hilltop) that provides light for ships to navigate by – probably starts not long after the earliest permanent maritime harbours, which means it almost certainly goes back well into the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC, give or take), and maybe even the Neolithic.  As for where, I’d say Syria or Israel-Palestine is a good bet, but the Persian Gulf would also make sense.  Maybe even southeast Asia, but I don’t know anything about the archaeology of that region.

Herald of Opera asks:

So, it’s been nearly five years now, but I hope it’s not too late to remind you to tell us all about the centaur preserved in honey. You never told us about the centaur preserved in honey, and I don’t feel like looking up translations of Pliny the Elder’s work.

It’s never too late to ask me about Pliny the Elder.

So, in book 7, chapter 3 of the Natural History, Pliny is talking about unusual or miraculous births, beginning from twins and triplets, moving up to more… dubious reports.  He then says the following (my translation):

“It is written that Eutyche of Tralles was laid on her funeral pyre by 20 of her children, having borne 30, and Alcippe gave birth to an elephant.  However, this must be counted as a portent [i.e. the result of divine intervention; in Roman culture the gods were thought to convey their will or displeasure through miraculous or ominous events], just like when a slave girl gave birth to a snake at the beginning of the Marsian War; and there are a wide range of creatures born with multiform bodies that should also be considered omens.  Claudius Caesar [who, in addition to being Emperor, was a prolific historian] writes that a horse-centaur was born in Thessaly and died on the same day, and during his reign I myself saw one, brought to him from Egypt in honey.”

And, well, he could be making this up, but I don’t think that’s his style.  If Pliny says that he saw this centaur, I believe that he believes it.  I think it’s more likely that he was taken in by a hoax.  I think that some Roman bastard in Egypt, looking to curry favour with the Emperor, stitched together parts à la Fiji Mermaid from the dead bodies of a horse and a human (probably either a condemned criminal, whose bodies were sometimes used for medical experiments in Alexandria, or a slave, whom I can only hope died of natural causes) and Fed-Exed the awful thing to Claudius in Rome.  The honey would have kept it “fresh,” because – as the Romans apparently knew, on the basis of this passage – honey has antibacterial properties.  There are jars of honey found in Egyptian tombs of the New Kingdom that are still recognisable as honey and theoretically still edible, although I don’t think anyone has dared to try it.  It was probably the best substance readily available at the time for preserving biological specimens.

I want to imagine a sort of fish-tank setup with big transparent panes of glass and clear golden honey so you could actually see the alleged centaur floating inside.  Sadly, as a Roman glass nerd I know that in Claudius’ time even the Emperor would probably not have been able to get hold of large glass panes of high enough quality to create a setup like that.  More likely, it was sent to Claudius stuffed into a big terracotta jar, and he kept it there and had someone fish it out for Pliny to take a look.

The Romans were weird people.

A Black Lizard-Lion on a Grey-Green Field asks:

How exactly was Athens able to take over the Delian League without anyone contesting it until it was too late to not incite violence?

and related:

A bald eagle implies the existence of a hairy eagle asks:

Why did Athens take over the Delian League?

So… “why” I think is actually pretty simple: because it made them richer and more powerful.  I mean… obviously it’s more complicated than that, and publicly they professed altruistic motives and said the word “freedom” a lot (…remind you of anyone?), but honestly… when you get right down to it, I think it was because wealth and power are useful to have.  Classical Athens was a democracy and we remember it for its literature and art and philosophy, but that doesn’t mean they were “the good guys” in any meaningful sense.  Thucydides, who wrote the main contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War, seems to think that they trapped themselves into it: the more power you gain, the more you have to be afraid of what happens if you lose it, and the more desperately you have to fight to hold onto it, potentially to the exclusion of all ethical concerns.

Continue reading “A Black Lizard-Lion on a Grey-Green Field asks:”

Chocolish, Chocolite, and Chocoluxe asks:

2 questions.
What’s your all time favorite dinosaur?
What are some obscure Greco-Roman creatures from mythology?

First part, easy: Parasaurolophus.  Couldn’t exactly tell you why; it’s a childhood thing.  The trumpet horn is neat and it’s kinda funny that people used to think it was a snorkel (good Pokémon design fodder there; it’d make a nice Water-type).

As for the second part… hmm… well, how obscure are we talking here?

‘cause some of the weirdest bull$#!t isn’t even really from “mythology” per se, but from geography and ethnography – Greek and Roman scholars writing down whatever half-baked rumours they could scrape together about distant lands and their inhabitants.  For instance: ya boi Pliny the Elder talks in book VIII of the Natural History about this animal that supposedly lives in Ethiopia, a place he had definitely never been to, called the crocotta, which is the product of either a dog mating with a wolf or a hyena with a lion – unclear which; possibly both (also, according to Pliny, hyenas attract dogs as prey by mimicking the sound of a man vomiting, and touching a hyena’s shadow will cause a dog to go mute, so frankly his description of a “hyena” might as well be a mythical creature too).  The crocotta has the legs and hooves of a deer, the body and mane of a lion and the head of a badger, and instead of teeth it just has this one long ridge of bone that goes all the way around the inside of its mouth.  Oh, and it can imitate a human voice for some reason, and uses this ability to call people by name at night to draw them out into the wilderness where it can eat them.  It’s just an aggressively terrible animal and I’m glad it doesn’t exist because if it did then I, personally, would be morally obligated to exterminate it.

Make a Pokémon outta that and smoke it.

The Dag asks:

Why is Aphrodite considered an Olympian instead of a Titan?

Well.  Hesiod doesn’t give a definitive list of “the Olympians” in the Theogony, and it’s the Theogony that claims Aphrodite was born of the blood of Ouranos – Homer says in the Iliad that she’s a daughter of Zeus.  In fact, I don’t think anyone gives a definitive list of “the Olympians” until the Hellenistic period.  The Homeric Hymn to Hermes mentions that there are twelve of them, but doesn’t say which twelve, except that Hermes isn’t one of them (because the Hymn is about Hermes’ ascent to godhood).  The idea that there are twelve of them is persistent in ritual, but it doesn’t seem like anyone thought it was particularly important to come to a firm agreement about who the twelve actually were (Herodorus’ list of the twelve gods to whom Heracles made sacrifices at Olympia includes Kronos, Rheia and Alpheios, who would never make it onto any modern list of “the twelve Olympian gods”).  It’s also perfectly acceptable in Greek poetry to refer to a whole bunch of minor deities, notably the Muses, as “Olympian” (often it’s really just a synonym for “divine”).  So “Olympian” is fuzzy and you can get away with throwing a whole lot of people in there.

“Titan,” on the other hand, is pretty specific.  Hesiod claims that “Titan” was a name given to them by Ouranos, and he derives it from τιταίνω, to stretch or strain, and τίσις, vengeance (which is probably not the real etymology, but it’s what he believed, at any rate), so I think in his mind “Titans” only means the twelve children of Gaia and Ouranos who rebelled against the rule of their father, whom he explicitly lists: Kronos, Rhea, Koios, Phoebe, Hyperion, Theia, Iapetos, Mnemosyne, Kreios, Themis, Okeanos and Tethys.  There are other, different lists of the Titans given by other ancient authors (Apollodorus adds Dione, the mother of Aphrodite in the Homeric tradition, for a total of thirteen; the sixth Clementine Homily seems to think that Demeter was a Titan, but this is a Christian text citing pagan myth in order to discredit it, so it could conceivably have some details muddled).  Today we often consider several of their more famous children to be “Titans” as well – notably Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Leto, Helios, Selene and Hekate, or even more distant descendants like Calypso – but to be honest I can’t find an ancient source that actually calls any of them “Titans” so I’m not sure when that starts; it could be in the scholia or something.  So the short answer is simply that, despite belonging to an earlier generation than the other “Olympians” in Hesiod’s version of the creation myth, there is no tradition I’m aware of that ever says Aphrodite was part of the rebellion against Ouranos.  It also helps that Aphrodite literally lives on Olympus, which the Titans traditionally didn’t – according to Hesiod they hung out on Mount Othrys (which like Olympus is the name of a real mountain in Greece; it kind of faces Mount Olympus across the plain of Thessaly).

Grass monkey, that funky monkey, GRASS MONKEY! asks:

So, the Greek God Apollo, he is definitely bi right?

Well, there’s a bunch of caveats I have to rattle off whenever someone asks a question like this, ‘cause in ancient Greek culture there’s no such thing as “bi” or “gay” – and there’s definitely no such thing as “straight.”  The categories simply don’t exist; there are no words for them in the ancient Greek language.  Personally, I think we have reason to believe that the whole concept of being exclusively attracted to only one gender would have seemed a bit alien to the ancient Greeks.  It’s just… kind of normal for adult men – men who are married to women and happily participating in a strictly patriarchal and, weirdly, kind of heteronormative social structure – to also be attracted to younger men and teenage boys, and indeed to have sex with them.  What’s more, this is totally fine, because in general Greek marriage customs only require that a married woman should not have sex with any men other than her husband (and Sparta had exceptions to even that rule; I also kind of suspect that extramarital lesbian relationships might have been common as well, but that’s a lot harder to track, because almost all our written sources come from male perspectives and they just have an extremely rudimentary understanding of female sexuality).  Marriage is a very functional, utilitarian, transactional thing; you get married in order to produce legitimate male heirs who will inherit your property and your place in the social fabric of your city.  That’s a duty that you have not just to your family but to your entire community, because it ensures continuity of land ownership, and land is where the community lives and produces food.  The point I’m trying to make is that male/male romantic or sexual relationships are doing different things from male/female ones, in a way that wouldn’t have left much room for a modern conception of same-sex relationships, where we want to be seen as equal and equivalent to straight people.

Continue reading “Grass monkey, that funky monkey, GRASS MONKEY! asks:”

Son of Iris asks:

I know this blog is about Pokemon, but due to your recent chain on twitter about a Percy Jackson TV series, how would you rate & rank each of Riordan’s books, at least the ones you have read in full.

honestly, dude, I’ve had so many classics questions coming in lately I don’t actually know what this blog is anymore

I’m not going to do a whole rank-and-rate numbered list thing, because… frankly there’s a lot of them.  That just sounds like more work than I want to do, especially since it’s been a while since I read most of them; like, the original Percy Jackson and the Olympians books came out when I was a teenager and I don’t think I’ve reread any of them in full since then; I also haven’t read book 4 of Trials of Apollo yet.  I think the Magnus Chase books are probably my favourites in the Percy Jackson ‘verse, which is not entirely because of Alex Fierro but honestly that’s a pretty significant factor.  I think those books are also a really good example of how minority representation in fiction is good, not just for people who don’t often get to see characters like them in media, but because working with diverse perspectives can actually make a story just flat-out more interesting.  Riordan’s whole schtick is reinventing mythology as a presence in the modern world, and that just works better with the widest possible range of character backgrounds.

Continue reading “Son of Iris asks:”

Nothronychus asks:

What’s your favorite hellenistic Greek City-State and why?

So, even as a classicist it has never really occurred to me to have a favourite Hellenistic Greek city-state (because… why?).  Maybe this makes me a bad classicist.  But it really seems like a weird thing to have, because we usually think of the Hellenistic period as the era when the city states don’t particularly matter anymore; it’s all about empires and god-kings.  So I had this hour-long discussion with Jim the Editor about what possible valid answers this question could even have, because what still counts as a city-state in the Archaic-to-Classical Greek sense?  He doesn’t think anything that’s part of one of the big kingdoms counts, because city-states are supposed to have political autonomy – so we can’t pick the really big centres like Alexandria or Antioch, and Jim thinks Pergamon does still count, whereas I don’t think you can count Pergamon if you’re not also willing to count Alexandria (and anyway, can’t you be both a city state and the capital of an empire?  I mean… Athens and the Delian League, for fµ¢£’s sake).  And then what even counts as Greek, because all this stuff is, like… Greco-Macedonian(-Persian?) koine that doesn’t closely resemble classical Greece in its politics, society or culture; the only ones that you could reasonably argue aren’t a little Macedonian by this point are the western colonies (Syracuse, Neapolis, Tarentum, Massilia, etc.) and Sparta (and no one, at all, in the world cares about Hellenistic Sparta).  Or you can swing wildly in the other direction and argue with equal merit that everything is Greek, because I have definitely heard people suggest, only a little bit ironically, that Rome is in practice a Greek city-state up until basically the Punic Wars (especially if you buy into Dionysius’ “the Romans are totally Greek, guys!” bull$#!t).

So yeah, I dunno.  My actual favourite is probably Cyrene but they only barely make it into the Hellenistic period with their independence so maybe that’s not in the spirit of the thing.  Rhodes is cool.  Colossus of Helios, obviously.  Lots of good glasswork done on Rhodes in the Hellenistic period too, and I am nothing if not a glass nerd.  Syracuse has Archimedes’ giant death laser (I want to believe, okay???).  Hellenistic Athens is really interesting, actually; like, we all fixate on the Classical stuff in Athens but they get up to just as much Game of Thrones bull$#!t as any Hellenistic monarch in trying to preserve their independence and democratic traditions.  They also have this fascinating position as, like, the ex-cultural capital of the Greek world that they continue to leverage for political gain well into the time of the Roman Empire.  These are certainly some opinions that I have.