Monday 24th of June 2024

the pangs of life...


"Marriages don’t last the way they used to.” we are often told by old women. Theirs lasted nearly 60 years of love, trials, boredom, six children, anger and deception, until the old man’s brain vanished into dementia and died with no memory of his own existence. 

We are told that Brad and Jennifer are friends again. The relationships of celebs and royals are often more rocky than not. Apart from Prince Andrew, the royals are making a better effort at it these days, by marrying, for love and duty, commoners with smiling beauty. But beauty and notoriety is not enough to keep the world together. Money, wars and other women/men can come in between shaky ideals, in which the ordinariness of human life resembles that of sexy monkeys in Gucci or Versace clothes, with golden crowns. In ancient Greece, the problems of rocky relationships were due to one goddess with a face like a beautiful cow — Hera, who possibly was also Juno, in the Roman mythology...

Hera was responsible for the 12 "Travails” of Hercules. Hera was the jealous bitch by excellence and was married to her own brother, Zeus — the god of gods… She was the goddess of goddesses, that of women and birth, often assisted by her own daughter. Pain?. No, but it seems this way. Hera's daughter was Eileithyia. Hera had Eileithyia to prolong Hercules birth to nine months.

This is the way Erasmus Darwin explains how Hercules survives the serpents sent by a jealous Hera (Juno) to kill him at birth. Hercules was the "illegitimate" son of Zeus who had laid Alkmene. It’s complicated…

…Their gasping throats with clenching hands he holds ;
And Death untwists their convoluted folds.
                                                     Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was an accomplished scientist and inventor, one of the most successful doctors in eighteenth-century England, and a best-selling poet. He anticipated a theory of biological evolution a full 70 years before his grandson Charles's On the Origin of Species, and his poetry had a marked influence on Romantics.

Hercules’ mortal father was Amphitryon (nephew of Elektryon, ruler of Mycenae) and his mother was Alkmene; both were from Argos. However, following a violent quarrel between Amphitryon and his uncle, resulting in the accidental death of the latter, the family fled to Thebes where Hercules was born. 

In mythology, though, it was Zeus who had laid Alkmene and so fathered Hercules, explaining the origin of Hercules’ great strength. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was jealous of Hercules and made life difficult for him from an early age. The goddess had delayed his birth so that his cousin Eurystheus would be born first to become the ruler of Greece according to Zeus’ decree. Hera also sent two snakes to kill the new-born Hercules, but the baby easily strangled them. 

Hercules enjoyed divine favour though from the Olympian gods — he did, after all, help them in their battle against the Giants — and he was particularly favoured by Athena.

Athena, also referred to as Athene, is goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill.

She is often portrayed as companion of heroes and is the patron of heroic endeavour.

Athena was “cloned" from Zeus, after he experienced an enormous headache and she sprang fully grown and in armour from his forehead. She has no mother, but the “truth” is that Zeus had laid Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom. Then Zeus swallowed Metis whole as he feared she would give birth to a child more powerful than him because of a prophecy – but Athena had already been conceived...

Below all this, runs a few narratives that at some point entered the New Testament, as written hundred years after the death of Jesus — with many conflicting stories, including godly induced birth of a saviour — written by Greek fabulators, that have been streamlined to suit, by the Nicaea council, under Constantine. 

But here we shall study Erasmus.

Charles Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was one of the leading intellectuals of eighteenth century England, a man with a remarkable array of interests and pursuits. Erasmus Darwin was a respected physician, a well known poet, philosopher, botanist, and naturalist.

As a naturalist, he formulated one of the first formal theories on evolution in 
Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life (1794-1796). He also presented his evolutionary ideas in verse, in particular in the posthumously published poem The Temple of Nature. Although he did not come up with natural selection, he did discuss ideas that his grandson elaborated on sixty years later, such as how life evolved from a single common ancestor, forming "one living filament". He wrestled with the question of how one species could evolve into another. Although some of his ideas on how evolution might occur are quite close to those of Lamarck, Erasmus Darwin also talked about how competition and sexual selection could cause changes in species: "The final course of this contest among males seems to be, that the strongest and most active animal should propogate the species which should thus be improved". Erasmus Darwin arrived at his conclusions through an "integrative" approach: he used his observations of domesticated animals, the behaviour of wildlife, and he integrated his vast knowledge of many different fields, such as paleontology, biogeography, systematics, embryology, and comparative anatomy. This "integrative" approach is the very foundation upon which the U.C. Museum of Paleontology and the recently formed Integrative Biology Department at the University of California at Berkeley are built.

In addition to Erasmus Darwin's contributions to the future of biological studies, he was also a leader in an intellectual community that contributed to the emergence of the industrial era. Among his intellectual peers were James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestly, and Josiah Wedgwood. It is probably no coincidence that Charles Darwin, the grandson of such a progressive thinker, produced some of the most important work in the history of biological and social thought.

"Next by SENSATION led, new joys commence
From the fine movements of the excited sense;
In swarms ideal urge their airy flight,
Adorn the day-scenes, and illume the night.
Her spells o'er all the hand of Fancy flings,
Gives form and substance to unreal things;
With fruits and foliage decks the barren waste,
And brightens Life with sentiment and taste;
Pleased o'er the level and the rude presides,
The painter's brush, the sculptor's chissel guides,
With ray ethereal lights the poet's fire,
Tunes the rude pipe, or strings the heroic lyre:
Charm'd round the nymph on frolic footsteps move
The angelic forms of Beauty, Grace, and Love.

hercules and his deeds...

Herakles and Hercules are the same.


Hercules married Megara, the daughter of Kreo, King of Thebes, and together they had five children. Hera once more interfered (read from top) and drove Hercules insane so that he killed his wife and children. In desperate remorse, he sought the advice of Apollo via his oracle at Delphi. The advice was for Hercules to offer his services to his cousin Eurystheus, the king of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Argos. Hera once more influenced events by persuading Eurystheus to set the hero difficult and dangerous tasks — the famous twelve labours of Hercules...

We have already dealt with the death of Hercules on this site. Other supermen die of old age or from a Penguin death-ray, unless it’s a poisoned barb from a fish-ray. Death is the centrepiece of many stories, legends and unfortunate reality. I wonder if the old woman who had just collapsed in the street makes it into the new year, despite being looked after by passer-byes... The Ambos are on the way… I can hear the sirens… The heat affects old people. It’s 41 degrees Celsius outside, and possibly more than 60 under the Australian sun… So Dante’s Inferno has nothing to teach us. Being boiled alive could be a respite.

Euripides’ plays exhibit an iconoclastic, rationalising attitude toward religious belief and to the ancient myths at the core of traditional Greek drama. For Euripides, these legends were a mere collection of stories without any particular authority. He rejected the Homeric gods, whom he depicted as irrational, petulant, and he was uninterested in “divine justice.” This is where Euripides is closer to Freud than little Jesus.

Given this attitude of sophisticated doubt on his part, Euripides invents characters who are different from the larger-than-life heroes. They are, mostly commonplace, down-to-earth men and women who have all the flaws and vulnerabilities ordinarily associated with human beings. Furthermore, Euripides makes his characters express doubts, problems and controversies, and in general the ideas and feelings representative of his own time. His characters will also debate each other on current philosophical and social interest.

Thus Euripides differed from Aeschylus and Sophocles by making his characters’ tragic fates stem almost entirely from their own flawed natures and uncontrolled passions. Chance, disorder, human irrationality and immorality result not in reconciliation or moral resolution, but in meaningless suffering that is indifferent to the gods. The power of this drama lies in the frightening and ghastly situations it creates and in the melodramatic, even sensational, emotional effects of its characters’ tragic crises. But this does not mean there is no fairy tale in the end…

In "Alcestis", Euripides tells the more ethereal story of the mythical queen of Thessaly, wife of King Admetus, who came to personify the devoted, selfless, woman and wife in ancient Greece. Euripides uses this storyline to explore altruism. Alcestis is best known for her devotion to her husband in taking his place in death. Her return to life through the intervention of the hero Herakles (better known as Hercules). 

In the older original myth, Alcestis is returned to life by Persephone, but Euripides reworked the story for greater dramatic effect — to capitalise on the popularity of Hercules who, by Euripides' time, was a significant drawcard "at the box office". 

Admetus ruled over a small kingdom in Thessaly. He knew each of his subjects by name and so, one night when a stranger appeared at his door begging for food, he knew the man must be from a foreign land but welcomed him into his home anyway. He fed and clothed the stranger and asked him his name, but the man would give no answer other than to ask Admetus if he could be the king's slave. Admetus had no need for another slave but, recognising the man was in distress, took him on as shepherd for his flocks.

The stranger stayed with Admetus for a year and a day and then revealed himself as the god Apollo. He had been sent to earth by Zeus as punishment and could not return to the realm of the gods until he had served a mortal as a slave for a year. 

Apollo thanked Admetus for his kindness and offered him any gift he desired, but Admetus said he had all he needed and required nothing for what he had done. Apollo told him he would return to help him whenever he needed anything in the future and then vanished.

Not long after this, Admetus fell in love with the princess Alcestis of the neighbouring city of Iolcus. Alcestis was kind and beautiful and had many suitors but only wanted to marry Admetus. Her father Pelias, however, refused Admetus' request for her hand and stipulated that the only way he would give his daughter to him would be if he rode into the city in a chariot pulled by a lion and a wild boar.

Admetus was despondent over this situation until he remembered the promise of Apollo. He called on the god who appeared, wrestled a lion and a boar into submission, and yoked them to a golden chariot. Admetus then drove the chariot to Iolcus, and Pelias had no choice but to give him Alcestis in marriage. Apollo was among the wedding guests and gave Admetus an unusual gift: a kind of immortality. Apollo told them how he made a deal with the Fates, who governed all, so that, if ever Admetus became sick to the point of death, he might be well again if someone else would volunteer to die in his place.

The couple lived happily together for many years and their court was famous for their lavish parties but then, one day, Admetus fell ill and the doctors said he would not recover. The people of his court remembered the gift of Apollo and each felt that someone should give their life to save so kind and good a king, but no one wanted to do so themselves. Admetus' parents were old and so it was thought that one of them would volunteer but, even though they had only a short time left on the earth, they refused to surrender it. None of the court, nor any of Admetus' family, nor any of his subjects would take the king's place on his death bed — but Alcestis did.

Alcestis agrees to take her husband's place and dies. Her spirit is led down into the underworld by Thanatos (death). In Euripides version of the story, Hercules (in between two of his twelve tasks) fights Thanatos and brings back Alcestis. Alcestis and Admetus then live happily ever after.