Essay | In Praise of the Lesser Known Siblings of Mythology by Philip Womack

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Philip Womack


In Praise of the Lesser Known Siblings of Mythology

 

When fossicking through the cornucopia of classical mythology, we tend to stop and savour the meaty, intergenerational conflicts. The Titan Cronus overthrows his father, Uranus, scything off his genitals; the Olympian Zeus neutralises his father Cronus; and nobody kills or neutralises Zeus, because he’s seen it all before, and is far too canny and in control. Still. In the Iliad, one of Zeus’ epithets is ‘Son of Cronus’: just in case, one assumes, he forgets. The Greek tragedies also see much murder of the patri- or matri-cidal kind. Perseus, Oedipus, Orestes; all have a hand in the death of a relative, knowingly or not.

But the dynamics between siblings also underpin plenty of classical mythology. One can only imagine the deep-seated psychological traumas that abounded amongst the families of the gods and heroes. The brothers and sisters of Zeus help him to dethrone their father, Cronus – he and Rhea did rescue them from being slowly digested, after all – but also spend a fair amount of time plotting to overthrow him (unsuccessfully). The brutal, bloody battles between Thyestes and Atreus climax in Atreus serving up his brother’s children to him in a pie, taking sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Agamemnon mobilised all of Greece in order to retrieve his brother Menelaus’s wife, Helen (and ended up dead because of it, whilst Menelaus lived on, a rather bumbling figure with the most beautiful woman in the world). And of course Romulus murdered his brother, Remus, who had the temerity to jump over his defensive wall. Antigone was formed and shaped by Polynices and Eteocles; she loved her brother enough to die for him, but we only sing of her.

But where are the monuments to Remus alone? He has no city, no story outside of his brother’s; he is eternally chained to his murderer, his own brother. It’s time to give some space to the lesser known siblings of mythology. As in any family, right from the beginning, there were those who were promoted to the glories of royal status and cult worship, and those who were forgotten, presumably left behind to do the real work.

The Titans were the first race of gods; Rhea was one of them. But what became of her brothers and sisters? Coeus represented rational thought: what was he doing when Uranus had his bits chopped off? Perhaps nobody listened to him, as always, and he was left rather kicking his heels. Spare a thought, too, for the Titan Crius. He doesn’t represent anything. Not even Aries, the ram, which is what the name Crius means. Mythographers suggest that he was added in to lists of the Titans simply to make up the number twelve, so that they could match the twelve Olympians. Talk about being picked last for the team.

For every Zeus, hurling his thunderbolts hither and yon, there is a Hestia, sweeping up behind him, making sure the fire is kept lit and everyone’s towels are clean. Hestia barely features in myth, yet her importance is vast. Some even say that she gave up her place on Olympus for the noisy, sybaritic Dionysus: this is untrue. She was still there, quietly taking out the bins and emptying the Olympian dishwasher. For every Cassandra, wailing and prophesying her dooms, there is a Helenus, discreetly managing to escape the fall of Troy and found his own new city, thank you very much, not that anyone’s noticed, and cousin Aeneas gets all the glory. For every Dido, hurling herself tragically and heroically on a funeral pyre, there is an Anna Perenna, ending up in Italy and settling down for a new life.

When Orestes and Electra conspire to take revenge on their mother Clytemnestra, you’ve got to wonder about their (as Sophocles has it) reasonable sister Chrysothemis, watching aghast from within the palace. What did she do, when Orestes and Electra emerged, hands bloodied, from the killing? Live out her days in a cottage on the estate, ever watchful that her brother and sister might turn the dagger onto her?

One of the most beguiling (and ancient) tales in all of Greek myth is Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa. The outline of it is familiar: Perseus, aided by the gods Hermes and Athena, must slay the monster, whose fearsome gaze turns all that cross it into stone. Which he does, thanks to the use of his mirror-like shield (in which he sees the Gorgon’s face superimposed onto his own); he chops off her head. Stheno and Euryale are the Medusa’s sisters. They are meant to be immortal, whereas poor Medusa was quite clearly not; why did they not ravage the land, turning everyone to stone in revenge? Perhaps the petrification business became too wearying; perhaps they wanted the good life, and now make tasteful little animal sculptures in a cottage by the sea.

We are used, in Greek mythology, to spontaneous generation from mutilations: Aphrodite appeared from the foam of her father’s castrated genitals; and Medusa’s blood is similarly progenitive, producing the winged horse, Pegasus. And, as well, the giant Chrysaor.

Pegasus we all know and love. His combination of muscular, equine grace and bird-like ethereality makes him one of the most enduring images of myth. And yet Chrysaor – born at the same time – has little to his name, other than that he might wield a golden sword, or might even be a winged boar. In the painting by Edward Burne-Jones, Pegasus occupies the background; Perseus the foreground; Chrysaor is almost an afterthought, a tiny figure hardly noticeable, distinguished by… not very much. Did he have a heroic future? Did he, with his golden sword, cut a swathe through his enemies, conquer lands, defend his peoples? Or did he sit at home over his venison stew, looking up at the sky every now and again, and cursing slightly under his breath if Pegasus swooshed by on yet another glorious escapade?

It was worse, I suppose, if you were the sibling of an honest-to-goodness hero. Whilst everyone eulogises Hercules, who now even murmurs of Iphicles? He was the mortal half-brother of the hulk, or hunk; yes, he was powerful, but he couldn’t hold a candle to the Zeus-born elder brother. Hercules, driven mad, slew Iphicles’ two children.

Iphicles must have loved his brother, though, or have been deeply in thrall to him, for he helped him after his twelve (or so) labours; only to perish in battle, a by-product of his more magnificent sibling’s travails.

As one of his tasks, Hercules had to drag Cerberus up from Hades. You would have thought that Cerberus came from a litter of, say, six or so cute little three-headed puppies; but actually, his siblings were more diverse. Whilst a couple did reach a similar level of fame – there was the Hydra, for example, whose many heads grew back after they’d been chopped off; or the Chimera, who had a lion’s head, a goat’s head, and a snake’s, and met a terrible death at the hands of Bellerophon (who rode, incidentally, on Pegasus). But what of Orthrus? The runt of the litter, the little chap  only had two heads. Orthrus was killed by Hercules, whereas Cerberus, though sent to sleep by him, is kept alive. Perhaps Cerberus had a better agent.

We will never know how these lesser rivalries manifested themselves. But think, now, of that great web of relationships: of the power lines that flowed and crackled between them, how those heroes grew up alongside their brothers, their sisters. Jung had a lot to say about sibling rivalries: our dark shadows, our foils. Here, then, is a libation to the forgotten siblings of mythology, a monument to the weaker, the lesser, the collateral. May their names be given their due. And may the better known ones go out and get the bloody shopping, just this once.

Philip Womack is the author of several critically acclaimed novels for children: The Other Book, The Liberators; the Darkening Path trilogy, comprising The Broken King, The King’s Shadow and The King’s Revenge; The Double Axe, a reimagining of the Minotaur myth. The Arrow of Apollo, also set in the ancient world, was published in May 2020. Wildlord, his first teen fiction, is published in October 2021. How to Teach Classics to Your Dog: A Quirky Introduction to the Greeks and Romans (for adults) was published in October 2020.


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