Mythology, like fantasy, is a genre where the impossible becomes possible and the unreal takes flesh. Whether it’s gods walking the earth and aiding their chosen mortals, or incredible beasts which must be overcome through either wit or strength or both at once, or journeys beyond the boundaries of the known world, classical mythology provides plenty of exemplars of implausible deeds becoming touchstones of history. Here, the hero occupies a place between god and man. (They’re all men, of course, except perhaps for Atalante, who gets in on the Calydonian Boar action. The Amazons, apart from being Othered rather definitively, are usually the enemy.)
Read the first part of SFF and the Classical Past—Atlantis.
Now, I like the Mediterranean world of antiquity, with its dust and olive groves and hecatombs, but I’m not about to claim for it more than its fair share of uniqueness. Other regions and times have mythologies which can be seen—justifiably—as equally influential on modern literature, from the living religions of Native America and the Indian subcontinent to Incan Peru and icy Norse tales of Odin and his compatriots; and from the damp, boggy cattle-raiding epic of my homeland and the Matter of Britain to the apocalyptic literature of Hellenistic Judaea and the animal-headed gods of Egypt. (Everyone loves Egypt. Sexy tomb-raiding and the curse of the mummy’s revenge has a certain je ne sais quoi.)
Regardless of its historic grasp on the European imagination, Graeco-Roman mythology isn’t uniquely significant. But it’s still worth dragging up a bit closer to the light, and thinking about the ways in which its echoes stick around. If film productions like the recent execrable Clash of the Titans and the surprisingly entertaining Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief have anything to say to us, it’s that classical mythology retains the power to entertain. Rick Riordan’s ongoing YA series is certainly demonstrating that.
Riordan’s youthful hero’s namesake is, of course, Perseus. The son of Danae by Zeus (who famously impregnated her while in the form of a shower of gold), Perseus, as the result of a rather foolish promise, was compelled to acquire the head of a Gorgon. Advised by Hermes and Athena, he first sought out the Gorgons’ three sisters who were born old, and “had only a single eye and a single tooth, which they exchanged in turn between them.” [Apollodorus, Library of Greek Mythology, II.4] He tricked them into telling him the way to the nymphs of the Hesperides, and acquired from these nymphs winged sandals, a bag in which to safely carry a Gorgon’s head, and the helmet of Hades. Armed by Hermes with an adamantine sickle, he was then able to cut of the head off the sole mortal Gorgon, the famous Medusa. His further exploits include the rescue of Andromeda in Ethiopia from the sea-monster of a jealous Poseidon, and the fortification (or, according to Pausanias, foundation) of the city of Mycenae.
Most Greek heroes are either utter pricks, or tragically doomed by their own flaws, or both. Startlingly, Perseus is neither, unlike either Jason or Herakles, who share with him the distinction of being heroes from the generation before the Trojan War.
Jason—whose famous voyage of the Argo is memorably retold by Apollonius Rhodius—relies on Medea to survive and steal the Golden Fleece, helps her murder her brother to cover their getaway, and years later betrays his oaths to her with tragic consequences. You see very little of Jason in SFF except by tenuous reflection, but Robin Hobbs’ Liveship Traders series might, at a stretch, be seen to draw upon the Argo.
Herakles is Zeus’s son by Alcmene. Known as a great warrior, universally acclaimed as the best of his generation, he’s tragically afflicted by Hera with madness. But the reimagining of him in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys* left out the less savoury aspects of his character. Like his tendency to kill people who insulted him. Or the buffoonery and gluttony implied of him in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Herakles holds the distinction of having sacked Ilium (Troy) when Priam was still a boy, campaigned in the Peloponnese, raped Auge, the daughter of Aleos (a descendent of Zeus and Callisto), and campaigned successfully in northern Greece as well. By modern standards, he’s not a very heroic hero. An antihero, maybe, though perhaps we can see reflections of Herakles in creations such as the Incredible Hulk, with his vast strength and unreliable temper.
*I will admit to having watched Xena several times, too.
One hero I’d be remiss not to mention is Odysseus, from the generation of the Trojan Wars. An odd duck of a hero, he’s famed for his cunning, and he tried to avoid having to go to war in the first place by feigning madness. His misfortunes on the way home were such that his name became a byword for lengthy journeys, and indeed, his greatest achievement may be fairly seen as surviving Poseidon’s wrath.
(Odysseus is a hero I hope to come back to, because his journeyings form a mythological template through which we can view the travails of science fiction heroes such as Farscape’s John Crichton or the crew of Star Trek’s Voyager. The voyage with no visible end is far more a theme of science fiction than of fantasy, though fantasy is not without its voyages: Dawn Treader leaps immediately to mind.)
The Trojan Wars weren’t a good time to be a hero, unless dying on the poet’s windy plain or suffering tribulations on the way home was something to be looked forward to. You might think I’m passing over them far too lightly in this space—and you’d be right—but like Odysseus, their position not only in the literary canon, but in science fiction, means they deserve a discussion all to themselves.
In moving past the heroes of the Trojan Wars we come to Aeneas, most pious of men, who spans the (seldom very wide) space between Greek and Roman mythic imaginations, both geographically and chronologically. Virgil’s great unfinished epic of Augustan literature has been taken up by more than one genre writer, chiefest among whom is, of course, Ursula K. LeGuin with her Lavinia.
But rather than head into tl;dr territory, I’ll leave the Aeneid, Roman heroes, and romanitas for the next installment.
Sometimes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Romans got into everything. Including science fiction and fantasy.
Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics in Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime SFF fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com.