Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

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The main part of his life is spent with Deianeira (“the destroying spouse”), a personification of the daylight; but toward the end of his career he again encounters Iole, now the beautiful twilight. It is then that Deianeira (the daylight), jealous of her rival’s charms, sends him the bloody Nessus robe, which he has no sooner donned, than he tears it from his bleeding limbs, ascends the burning pile, and ends his career in one grand blaze,—the emblem of the sun setting in a framework of flaming crimson clouds.

Like all solar heroes, he too has unerring poisoned weapons (“the word ios, ‘a spear,’ is the same in sound as the word ios, ‘poison’”), of which he is shorn only at death.

Perseus also belongs to this category of myths. Danae, his mother, either the earth (dano means “burnt earth”) or the dawn, a daughter of Acrisius (darkness), is born in Argos (brightness). Loved by Jupiter, the all-embracing sky, she gives birth to the golden-haired Perseus, a personification of the radiant orb of day; and he, like many another solar hero, is cast adrift immediately after his birth, owing to an ominous prophecy that he will slay the darkness from which he originally sprang.

[391] As soon as Perseus attains manhood, he is forced to journey against his will into the distant land of the mists (the Grææ), and conquer the terrible Medusa, “the starlit night, solemn in its beauty, but doomed to die when the sun rises.” He accomplishes this by means of his irresistible sword, the piercing rays of the sun, and then passes on to encounter the monster of drought, and to marry Andromeda, another personification of the dawn, the offspring of Celeus and Cassiopeia, who also represent night and darkness.

In company with Andromeda, Perseus, whose name also signifies “the destroyer,” revisits his native land, and fulfills the prophecy by slaying Acrisius (the darkness), whence he originally sprang.

In the Athenian solar myth, Theseus is the sun, born of Ægeus (the sea, derived from aisso, “to move quickly like the waves”) and Æthra (the pure air). He lingers in his birthplace, Trœzene, until he has acquired strength enough to wield his invincible sword, then journeys onward in search of his father, performing countless great deeds for the benefit of mankind. He slays the Minotaur, the terrible monster of darkness, and carries off the dawn (Ariadne); whom he is, however, forced to abandon shortly after on the Island of Naxos.

In his subsequent career we find him the involuntary cause of his father’s death, then warring against the Centaurs (personifications of the clouds, through which the victorious sun is sometimes forced to fight his way), then again plunging for a short space of time into the depths of Tartarus, whence he emerges once more; and finally we see him uniting his fate to Phædra (the twilight), a sister of the beautiful dawn he loved in his youth. He ends his eventful career by being hurled headlong from a cliff into the sea,—an emblem of the sun, which often seems to plunge into the waves at eventide.

In the story of the Argonautic expedition we have Athamas, who marries Nephele (the mist). Their children are Phryxus and Helle (the cold and warm air, or personifications of the [392] clouds), carried off to the far east by the ram—whose golden fleece was but an emblem of the rays of the sun—to enable them to escape from the baleful influence of their stepmother Ino (the broad daylight), who would fain encompass their destruction.

Helle, an emblem of the condensation of vapor, falls from her exalted seat into the sea, where she is lost. The ship Argo “is a symbol of the earth as a parent, which contains in itself the germs of all living things.” Its crew is composed mainly of solar heroes, all in quest of the golden fleece (the rays of the sun), which Jason recovers by the aid of Medea (the dawn), after slaying the dragon (the demon of drought). Æetes, Medea’s father, is a personification of the darkness, which vainly attempts to recover his children, the dawn and light (?), after they have been borne away by the all-conquering sun.