Posts Tagged ‘Achilles’

PegasusIt’s true:   The Greek god Zeus had an eagle.  Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, had her ever-present hunting dogs and stags with silver horns to pull her chariot.    For us lesser beings, one of my favorite things about mythology is Joseph Campbell’s concept of “magical helpers” along the path.  These often (but not always) appear as animals. Some interpreters of Greek myths add that the animal companion symbolizes Nature’s approval of the hero, or of his mission.

If one cares to look, Greek mythology is a garden of animals with fascinating powers, often acting as helper or companion to a hero.    Here is an introductory list:

  1. Pegasus, probably the most famous mythical animal of the Greeks, was a magnificent winged horse which sprang from the neck of Medusa after she had an unpleasant encounter (read: beheading) with the hero Perseus.  Pegasus’ name in Greek means “springing forth”.  The Greek hero Bellerophon tamed Pegasus before riding him into airborne battle with the monstrous Chimera.  The “magical helper” part of their relationship ended when Pegasus gave Bellerophon a forcible dismount: the hero, drunk with victory,  attempted to use the magical steed to ride to the home of the gods. The winged horse, however, was welcomed to Olympus, becoming a member of Zeus’ stable and a famous constellation as well.   Pegasus is known as Zeus’ thunderbolt carrier; the arrival of his constellation is the herald of spring.
  2. A loyal hound named Argus was the companion of young Odysseus, hero of the Iliad and of the Odyssey.  Argus was renowned for his speed, power, and near-supernatural ability to track game; the hound was at Odysseus’ side when the hero received his famous scar on the thigh (it later helped him prove his identity).   Argus stayed behind when Odysseus  left his kingdom of Ithaca for the decade-long Trojan War, followed by the Odyssey ‘s ten years of struggle to return home.   Argus was still waiting when, twenty years after his departure, Odysseus entered his own palace courtyard dressed as a beggar; despite all of that, the elderly Argus recognized his master, greeted him with a tail wag, and then died.  Argus is a touching, enduring example of love and loyalty: today, the Argus Institute at Colorado State University is named for him.
  3. The nearly-invincible hero of the Trojan War, Achilles, was a true demigod: his mother was a sea goddess.   The two magnificent horses that pulled Achilles’ war chariot, Balius and Xanthus, were wedding presents to Achilles’ parents from the Greek sea god, Poseidon.   As gifts from Poseidon, creator of horses, Balius and Xanthus were immortal, swift, and fearless.  Their father was Zephyr, the west wind.  Legend says that Balius and Xanthus hung their heads and wept when their charioteer, Patroclus, was killed in the Trojan war (Greek war chariots had a charioteer to handle the horses and  a soldier- Achilles in this case-  to do the fighting).  When Achilles took their reins in battle-rage, ready to ride for revenge upon Patroclus’ killer, Xanthus spoke, warning  him, “The day of your death is near… for you there is destiny to be killed in force by a god and a mortal” (Homer).   The Iliad then describes Achilles’ glorious charge toward Troy, his armor shining like the sun,  the two immortal horses’ hooves gleaming as they raced through the battalions with the speed of their sire, the West Wind.
The ancient storytellers knew of nature’s bonds with mankind.  This is but a tiny slice of the treasure trove of myths about marvelous animals:  as helpers, companions, and fellow warriors, their tales march down the halls of the ages still.  For further reading, you might enjoy this article about magical helpers.  


Homer, Iliad, 19.32 via Theoi Greek Mythology


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