Today we will talk about a few quests in Greek mythology. I have already mentioned some - Heracles’ Labours, Orestes’ quest for the image of Artemis that would enable him finally to escape the Erinyes, Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, Perseus’s quest for Medusa’s head(although that was from the viewpoint of Medusa), Bellerophon and his quest to slay the Chimaera.
A number of these quests are arranged by someone who doesn’t wish the hero well.
Heracles is doing the Labours because he was driven mad and killed his family, but Eurystheus just wants him out of the way and gives him a series of quests that would be impossible to anyone else, to keep him busy. He does end up with a useful lion skin, I guess. But on the whole, he didn’t gain much by them.
Jason is sent on his quest for the Fleece by a king who has heard a prophecy involving himself and wants Jason out of his way and dead if possible.
Still, he has an interesting time along the way. One adventure involved the women of Lemnos, who had killed off their men for sleeping with captive women. When the Argonauts arrived, the women realised that there was not going to be another generation on their island - whoops! - and asked Jason and his men to impregnate them; they were only too happy to oblige...
|Phineus and the winged brothers. Public Domain|
My favourite of their adventures on the way was the story of the blind king Phineus and the Harpies who were plaguing him, ruining every meal. Harpies are smelly women with bird bodies and wings (There is a short story by Aussie author Helen Sargeant in which the Harpies are in fact sea gulls). Jason had hoped to get some advice to help with his journey, but the two Harpies had to be dealt with first. Fortunately two of the Argonauts were Calais and Zetes, sons of the North Wind and Phineus’s brothers-in-law. They had wings, so were able to chase the Harpies away. Phineus’ advice for navigating the Bosphorus ends with telling them that once in Colchis Jason should rely on Aphrodite. Well...yes. Medea falls in love with him.
Perseus is after Medusa’s head for an unselfish reason: to help his mother out, though that’s not much comfort to poor Medusa. His mother, Danae, had been thrown into a chest with Perseus, her baby by Zeus, and washed up in Seriphos, the kingdom of Polydectes, who fancied her and tried to marry her by force. Perseus, now a grown young man, defends her.
Polydectes says he is now going to marry another woman and asks his nobles for a horse each to present, except Perseus, who says he has nothing, but will get him anything he likes, even Medusa’s head. Oh, dear...
“Yes, please, that sounds great!” says Polydectes, happy to get rid of the boy. The quest begins with various gods helping out. It ends with Polydectes and his nobles being turned to stone. A dramatic end to that quest!
Odysseus, of course, has a quest to get home, which sees him arrive after twenty years, alone, after storms and monsters, being a goddess’s toy boy, visiting the Underworld and even after reaching home having to clear out his wife’s suitors.
The Roman tale of Cupid and Psyche has Psyche’s quest to get back her husband by obeying the orders of her mother-in-law, Venus, who makes her do some virtually impossible things, including going to the Underworld. That story has a lot of elements later found in folk tales, including animal helpers and earning back her husband after making a big mistake.
There is Orpheus’s quest to the Underworld to bring back his wife, spoiled by an understandable error. I think I prefer the ending to the mediaeval version.
Quests in modern fiction do tend to end well for the heroes, more or less. They usually involve a group of heroes who travel together to bring back the stolen gem or defeat the villain or whatever. Many of the ancient quests are individuals. Orestes has Pylades to go with him and, of course, there is the Argo quest, which is more like the ones we’re familiar with.
Quests in the Greek myths don’t always end well. Look at Jason and Bellerophon.
Tomorrow I’ll be talking about Mary Renault, who wrote the definitive stories of Theseus.