Category Archives: Mythology

On letting go and choices: Calypso the concealer

But it was I who saved him […]

I fed him, loved him, sang that he should not die

Nor grow old, ever,

Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Brooding, Odysseus looks out to sea. Odysseus and Calypso (1883) by Arnold Böcklin. Kunstmusuem Basel. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thus Calypso tells Hermes about saving Odysseus from shipwreck. After Odysseus has spent seven years on her island, Ogygia, Hermes has come with the message from Zeus that she must let Odysseus go.

Despite the lush beauty of the island and the option of an eternity sharing the bed of a goddess, Odysseus pines away, longing to return home, to Penelope, to rocky Ithaca.

Calypso provides the tools for Odysseus to build a raft and food for his voyage. Like Circe, the other seductress, she gives him directions and insight into what he might expect: namely, continued danger at the hand of Poseidon, god of the sea. After all, Ogygia is an island.

Odysseus will gladly will undergo another baptism through salt, another storm at sea, another shipwreck, to return home.

Odysseus cannot escape Ogygia without Athena’s intervention

While Poseidon is visiting Ethiopia, Athena seizes the opportunity to tell Zeus that it is time for Calypso to let Odysseus go.

Could Odysseus, man of a thousand schemes and devices, not build a raft earlier? Apparently not. He had sunk into apathy, victim to a deep depression. Any potential escape is hidden from him.

Perhaps because Calypso is the concealer. Her very name announces it: from the Greek kalyptein “to cover, conceal.” After the visit from Hermes, she tells him that she has no more spells.

Ogygia is a liminal place

Like the Castle of No Return in Blancaflor, Ogygia is on the far far side of a great sea. It is not of the real world and it is not a place the gods want to visit. Only Hermes, the messenger god, will travel there, but not willingly.

It is another Lost Island. As Eva Brann explains: it is the absolute “address unknown.” Robert Graves suggests that Ogygia is under the same spell that cloaks Morgan le Faye’s Avalon and other fabled lands of eternal youth.

He goes on to say that Ogygia is death: its alders and cypresses representing resurrection; its fields of parsley, associated with Persephone, symbol of mourning and of letting go.

Caves of immortality and of death

Calypso’s cave is mentioned almost every time that she comes up in The Odyssey.

The other cave in the story is that of Polyphemus, where Odysseus and his men are held prisoner and some meet their deaths. Polyphemus, a barbarian, violates the Greek compulsion of hospitality. Odysseus must use his considerable skills to save himself and his remaining men.

Not looking very reluctant. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus reluctant? Ogygia also seems terribly crowded. Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (c. 1670) by Gérard de Lairesse. Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Calypso, by contrast, is the personification of hospitality: not only does she treat him like a god, she offers him her bed and eternal youth.

Looking for Ogygia

Ogygia lies to the west but its actual location is source of much controversy. It could be as close as Ionia, Gozo (the largest island of Malta), or as far as the Strait of Gibraltar (Perejil Island, another place that is neither here nor there) or even the Atlantic.

Plutarch proposed that Ogygia was a five-day sail west of Britain in the Irish Sea. It could even be America.

Looking at the images of Mediterranean candidates, one wonders whether Ogygia could be anywhere. Or nowhere.

Neither here nor there. Betwixt and between. Not of mortal men nor of the gods.

Odysseus chooses to leave, he chooses to die

Before he leaves, Calypso offers Odysseus eternal youth one more time. Life without death, in an island separated from all that is human, all that decays and ages, all conflict or strife.

Odysseus chooses mortal life, that is, to die. He chooses suffering.

Odysseus explicitly acknowledges that Penelope is but a shade beside Calypso. But Penelope is the woman he loves.

Double standards and the other woman

Following the wittingly named  Accidental Pornomancer trope, Odysseus spends time with not one, but two beautiful goddesses: Circe and Calypso. According to tales composed after the Odyssey, he fathered children with them.

Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Penelope must deploy her wiles to fend off the suitors.

Calypso angrily mentions another double standard among the Olympians.

You hate it when we choose to lie with men.

The gods seduced, or raped, many mortal women, but when the goddesses fell in love with men, they were punished. Calypso reminds Hermes that Zeus tends to kill the mortal lovers of goddesses.

But perhaps, the greatest punishment is that Odysseus doesn’t choose her. That she has ceased to please him. Like Medea’s Jason, he is done with the woman who saved him.

Suzanne Vega’s lovely song ends

I do not ask him to return

I let him go

What do you think? Is Calypso the other woman? Is Odysseus victim or seducer, hero or fool? 

Janus and attending the start of all things

In Fasti, Ovid’s poem about the Roman holidays, and consequently of Roman religion, he introduces Janus, or Ianus, the Roman god of doorways and gateways, with:

Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year

Unlike most Roman gods, Janus has no direct Greek precedent. Joseph Campbell suggests that Janus may be rooted instead in the animistic forces of the home or lars.

It doesn’t take my shelf of symbol, myth, and art history books, nor hours of searching through scholarly articles, to see the power of a deity of gateways.

But I looked through them anyway.

An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.
An as, a Roman coin made of heavy bronze from 240-225 BC. showing the head of bearded Janus on a raised disk. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc.  During the Roman republic, the as showed Janus on one side and the prow of a galley on the other.

And though the basics- gave the name to January, has two faces (sometimes four), beginnings and endings, Roman not Greek- were consistent, Janus turned out to be a somewhat cryptic deity.

Janus tells Ovid he was once called Chaos

This implies that he brings order from that Chaos. In Roman liturgy, he was honored before all other gods. He is the god of all that begins: day, month, or year.

By facing backwards, he holds in his hands the beginning and the ending of all things. Janus is reminder that nothing starts without something else ending, that no door opens unless another is closed.

Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Rome had many ceremonial gateways with symbolic entrances and exits. The double doors of the Janus Geminus, mentioned in Ovid’s poem, were left open during times of war and closed during times of peace.

Open in war and closed in peace?

No, it doesn’t make much sense, and it’s a point of discussion for scholars. The most credible explanation, from Rabun Taylor, is that Janus read the auspices.

A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE. It says PACE P R TERRA MARIQ PARTA IANVM CLVSIT S C and shows the Temple of Janus with ornate roof decoration, latticed window on the left and with a garland hung across the closed double doors to the right. BNC 319. BN 73. Cohen 146. RIC 438. WCN 419. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.
A sestertius (about 2.5 asses), a Roman coin of the time of Nero 54-68 CE, showing the Janus Geminus with closed double doors. From the From the Patrick H. C. Tan Collection. Source Classic Numismatic Group Inc. via Wikimedia Commons.

Divination in Rome was based on signs from the gods as to whether an action should be performed or not on a given day. Corresponding to the etymology of the word auspice (which means to look at birds), it was through the flight of birds, and lightning, that the gods spoke most frequently.

Who better to observe the flight of birds than one who can look in both directions?

As Taylor notes, the taking of auspices was almost continuous in time of war, making it necessary to consult the shrine of Janus, the Janus Gemini.

Janus is a liminal deity

A god of transitions, he was consulted before all others precisely because he provides passage to the other gods and to the the omens and signs that allow future action. Taylor notes:

As an arbiter of spatial transitions, Janus was more than a mere gateway. He determined human endeavors as well as space.

At once he looks to the past and to the future- in time, and inward to the home and outward to the other- in space.

His function at the gateway is not to protect, as would an apotropaic figure, like the Medusa. Rather it is to observe and to know. Janus contains within the past and the future, the inside and the outside.

Our calendar starts in January, in midwinter

As Janus tells Ovid:

Midwinter’s the first of the new sun, last of the old

Janus means that beginnings are necessarily born of endings. The year doesn’t start in spring with new growth, trees budding, and birds hatching. The year begins in winter, when it is still cold and nature is dormant.

This choice of new year is not universal.  Calendars have been drawn from the sun and from the moon. The start of the year varies from autumn through spring. How we attempt to contain and label time into a calendar speaks of the world that formed our cultures, our religions, and, ultimately, to politics and the pace of an increasingly connected world.

And so the year starts

The augurs in Rome observed the flight of birds as auspices or omens.

We’re already entering the second half of the month. New Year’s resolutions lay behind us. Recaps of 2013 are even further in the past. As for me, I didn’t complete my overview. I haven’t set new goals.

But Janus is always present, at the beginning of every day, every week, every month.

So it is always day one, moment one. It is always time to look back. We can erect an imaginary gateway anywhere, a place to look inside and outside. It is always the right time and place to be alert to the signs, to the omens.

We can start every day, everywhere.

In fact, we have no choice but to do so.

Who’s telling the story? The Homeric question (s)

Not THIS one.
Not THIS one.

We all learned in school that Homer is author of The Odyssey and The Iliad, the two oldest extant works of Western literature. However, since the two poems were born in an oral tradition, it’s not at all clear what that actually means. Ergo, the Homeric question.

Who’s the storyteller?

Homer has intrigued scholars since antiquity. In the 1st century CE, Plutarch gave ten possible cities as his birthplace: Salamis, Cyme, Ios, Colophon, Thessaly, Smyrna, Thebes, Chios, Argos, and Athens.

The very name “Homer” has been plumbed in the hope of clues. Some note similarities to the word for captive or hostage, suggesting that prisoners, or their children, who could not be trusted on the battlefield would be assigned the task of memorizing the songs of heroes.

This one. 2nd century BCE Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic marble bust of Homer, from Baiae, Italy in the British Museum. From Wikimedia Commons.
This one. 2nd century BCE Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic marble bust of Homer, from Baiae, Italy in the British Museum. From Wikimedia Commons.

Hmm, do you really want your prisoners of war telling your history? Of course it might explain why the Greeks don’t appear very heroic in The Iliad

Others interpret Homer’s name to derive from a word which could mean saga, or collection of tales. Some note that it means sightless.

By the way, besides the possible etymological link, the main evidence for Homer being blind comes from the blind singer Demodocus in the Odyssey, at the court of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric epic poems were sung

The epithets used in description, like Odysseus the cunning or the wine-dark sea, and the ubiquitous scenes that follow a fixed form, such as banquet scenes, are commonly used in the oral tradition.

Epithets play many roles: to aid in memory, to characterize and add vividness, and very importantly, to enable the oral poet to adhere to the line length required by meter.

So, there’s widespread agreement that the poems are rooted in the oral tradition.

But was their composition textless?

Some scholars, as represented by Martin West, say that a single author pulled together different oral pieces and reworked them in writing. They believe the poems are too complex and too consistent (for the most part) for wholly oral composition. Since a scribe would be unable to keep up with the singer at his usual speed, even transcribing the songs would be challenging.

Reconstructed Mycenaean helmet made from the ivory of boar tusks in the Museum of Athens. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Others, such as John Miles Foley, believe not only that the poems were composed orally, but that they cannot be understood in any other way. This conclusion is based on copious research in the oral tradition, especially in the Balkans, where singers of long epic poems could still be found in the early 20th century.

It is also possible that an oral poet learned to write and put it down.

It has long been suggested that The Odyssey was written by a woman. Recently, Andrew Dalby used arguments about women’s roles in language and story-telling to propose that The Iliad  was as well.

Statistical analyses of words or letters seem to support single authorship for the poems.

A Phoenician bowl with a hunting scene from 8th century BCE, similar to the description of Achilles’s shield in the Iliad. In Walters Art Museum. Source Wikimedia Commons.
A Phoenician bowl with a hunting scene from 8th century BCE, similar to the description of Achilles’s shield in the Iliad. In Walters Art Museum. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Mysteries remain

The experts tend to agree that four hundred years transpired between the fall of Troy around 1250 BCE and the first possible transcription of the Iliad. That period has been called the “Dark Ages.”

No single climatic or historical event can explain the collapse of the Mycenaean culture nor that of other complex societies. In fact, the decline may simply reflect a lack of archeological remains.

Homer described with great detail objects from both Mycenaean times, such as the boar tusk helmet, and from the 8th century.

Careful studies to date different parts of the poems only confuse matters more as the references from different periods are blended. The combination supports the idea of the story constantly being recreated. Though at some point, probably when it was written down, it took a form similar to what we know now.

Ćor Huso Husović

Foley tells us of a famed singer, called a guslar, mentioned by the Bosnian poem singers to the field anthropologists and linguists: Ćor Huso Husović. This master-singer was the source of all the best songs and singer of the largest repertoire. Very stout and tall, he traveled from town to town on horseback and was still spry at the age of 120.

Although different researchers independently heard of the fabled guslar, and though they tried to track him down, they never found him. As accounts were compiled, it became evident that it amounted to a tall tale: each singer was aligning themselves with the ultimate fictitious master, a legend.

Interestingly, Ćor means one-eyed.

We still don’t know if there was a Homer 

For a non-expert reader, the Homeric question seems like a snake chasing its own tail, since our best, if not only, clues about Homer come from the stories themselves.




Beauty or the beast: multiple faces of Medusa

Mosaic from a Roman villa in Spain of ~250CE, now in the Tarragona Archeological Museum. Source: Ophelia2 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Gorgon, Medusa, was known for her petrifying gaze. That mortal power continued after Perseus beheaded her so Athena used Medusa’s head on her shield.

Of course, there are multiple versions of this story, which continues to evolve today

In some versions Medusa had two immortal sisters, though for some (undisclosed) reason she was not. Daughters of primordial sea gods, they had long claws, fangs or tusks, and hissing serpents for hair. Their bulging eyes could turn a person to stone.

For some scholars the Gorgons represent the ancient matriarchal religions which were overthrown by the Olympians

In other versions, Medusa was a mortal girl who consorted with Poseidon, in some stories willingly. Athena retaliated by turning her into a monster.

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Enter Perseus

Her fatal run-in with Perseus occurred when a king who was courting his mother asked him to bring the Gorgon’s head as a banquet gift.

Though Perseus was a son of Zeus, he wasn’t known for any skill at that time, so Hermes and Athena took pity. Hermes gave him a curved sword and Athena a shiny reflecting shield.

They sent him to the Graea who knew the location of the Hesperides, nymphs from the western lands, who in turn knew where to find Medusa.

Lots of eyes in this story…

The Graea were three old women, sisters and daughters of the same primordial sea gods. They had one eye and one tooth between them- which they shared, like sisters do. When Perseus held the eye ransom, they told him what he wanted.

Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of her son Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (580BCE). The Gorgon in the center is flanked by lionesses and her sons, born from her blood when she was killed: on her right are the hind legs of Pegasus and on her left Chrysaor. In the Archeological Museum of Corfu. Source: Dr.K via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hesperides really set him up

They not only gave him directions to the faraway land of the Gorgons, they provided winged sandals for faster travel, a satchel to carry Medusa’s head, and a nifty cap of invisibility.

According to some stories, Medusa was asleep when Perseus arrived, which pretty much rendered her harmless. In any case, he didn’t look at her directly but used the shield to see and cut off her head.

Her sisters woke up and went after him, but Perseus donned his cap so they couldn’t see him. The sandals ensured a speedy exit.

According to some accounts, he rescued his future wife Andromeda on his way home, but others say it happened later.  But when he arrived to the court of the king, he pulled the Gorgon’s head out of his satchel and turned the pesky king and his guests to stone.

Then he gave Medusa’s head to Athena. She added it to her shield. Some say it was actually Zeus’s shield, but she used it more than he did.

Apotropaic images and symbols ward off evil

By using Medusa’s face to defend herself, Athena appropriated her power.

Images of frightening animals or creatures have long been used  to protect from evil, especially at doorways and windows. The eye is often used as an apotropaic image.

And there are so many references to vision in this story: the look that petrifies, the shared eye, the use of a mirror to see safely, escaping by becoming invisible.

What better defense than Medusa’s eyes?

Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.
Relief of Minerva, and hypothetical reconstruction of upper half. Source: Arxiu Municipal Tarragona.

Beauty or the beast?

Medusa often appears in the guise of a monster, while in other cases, like in Cellini’s Perseus, her features are human.

One interpretation is that this corresponds to an evolution through  time, from monster to maiden.

However, as noted by Kathryn Topper, some vases from the 6th century BCE show Medusa as a sleeping maiden. She suggests that these depictions of Medusa are telling a slightly different story in which Perseus is no hero.

And sometimes the shield has a Medusa that isn’t a Medusa

An incomplete relief of Minerva (the Roman version of Athena) from 300CE is found on the Roman walls of my hometown. Minerva stands in profile, her large shield before her. The shield holds no Medusa, but a wolf’s head.

The wolf was a sacred animal for the Iberians that lived on the Mediterranean coast of Spain when the Romans arrived. It represented strength and valor.

The Romans knew all about appropriating the power of those that came before

More recently, fashion designer Gianni Versace chose an image of Medusa as the logo for his company.  

And thus throughout history, symbols are repurposed. Their meaning evolves, but more slowly than their power wanes.

The tufted pua pua, yet another imaginary bird– or is it?

There is much discussion among ornithologists and birdwatchers on the status of the tufted pua pua (Ardea megacristacorax). While some consider it extremely rare, others assert that it must be extinct. Still others scoff at mentions of its existence, saying it is an imaginary bird.

Its geographic range is along the eastern flank of the Andes, with reports from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Assigned to the Ardea genus

The tentative classification is based on its size: 100cm or more in length, and wing spans exceeding 120cm. Its closest relative is thought to be cocoi heron, although the habitat and geographic range of the latter, a diurnal heron, is much more widespread. Of crepuscular or nocturnal behavior, the tufted pua pua makes its presence known most frequently through its call: a prolonged puuuuua puuuuuua.

Interestingly, when heard, the tufted pua pua is never seen. And when seen, its call is not heard.

Its habitat, like that of other herons, is in the environs of water, usually running water, and most sightings have been made above 500m. It is thought to eat fish and amphibians, although it is also reported to be a terrestrial hunter.

Its name megacristacorax  derives from the prominent (mega) crest or tuft (crista) and the raven-like (corax) behavior.

The original source of information is a tribe that has also seemed to disappear

The tufted pua pua is a key character in Maralabua worldview. The Maralabua, although never widespread themselves, had a strong influence on folklore and shamanic practices throughout the Andean region. Among these practices are multi-day rituals in which psychotropic substances are consumed. Most reports of the call of the tufted pua pua have been associated with such ceremonies in the Maralabua tradition.

The only extant photo of a tufted pua pua. (Or it may be an altered photo of a snowy egret taken by Jason Engman, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Tufted pua pua, guardian and guide to the dead

The tufted pua pua is a psychopomp in Maralabua tales and is said to appear only at the death of a great shaman. It does not call at these times, because its mission renders it mute.

This suggests that the tufted pua pua was never abundant, for the death of a great shaman would happen at most once in a generation.

The few sightings, the asynchrony of vocalizations and sightings, and its central mythological role have led many to conclude that the tufted pua pua is not real.

For these researchers, its characteristics are simply a composite to support legend

The tufted pua pua is the threshold creature, in so many ways…

It mediates between the dead and the living, between the unconscious and conscious, and between knowing and that pregnant moment of all unknowing.

It appears solely to facilitate passage, and only for shamans– those who already master that passage between dead and living, unconscious and conscious, knowing and unknowing.

It inhabits ecosystems of river margins in the Andean wet and cloud forests- threshold between river and jungle, between mountains and lowlands.

The only photo (of an imaginary bird?)

The most recent and best documented information comes from a graduate student in ethnobotany who had been separated from his companions and subsequently disappeared. He was feared dead, but was found five years later, bedraggled and confused. He carried a camera, which was of a make and age (a Зени́т-C) that supported his claim that it was not his.

The student explained that a female shaman had taken him as an apprentice near the ancestral land of the Maralabua. The camera, with a completely exposed roll of film, had come into her possession following the death of a great shaman (and prior to the arrival of the student). Once developed back in the United States, the photos were either all black or all white, except for this single shot.

This muddled account casts doubt on its veracity

Nonetheless it is the only known image of the tufted pua pua.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by imaginary animals, do let me know. And check back here as I’ll be writing about more of them. 

Islands and lost worlds, from the Odyssey to Arthur Conan Doyle

In a world where wonder hijacks you when you least expect it, connections abound. Like between the Odyssey and Arthur Conan Doyle, via Darwin and genetic studies.

It’s the islands

The Odyssey, composed by and for a sea-faring culture, is brimming with islands in a wine-dark sea. The story reminds us of something Darwin later used to develop his theory of natural selection.

Islanders- be they people, plants or animals- are isolated. That isolation means they adapt to their environment with relatively little influence from elsewhere. (Is anyone thinking finch beaks?)

The island hidden by a ring of mountains

Odysseus at the court of Alcinous by Francesco Hayez, 1814-1815, in Galleria Nazionale de Capodimonte, Source, The Yorck Project, via Wikimedia Commons.
Odysseus at the court of Alcinous (1814-1815) by Francesco Hayez in Galleria Nazionale de Capodimonte.  Odysseus is the one crying. Source: The Yorck Project, via Wikimedia Commons.

Odysseus visits many strange islands in his ten-year trip home.  When he washes ashore in Scheria, the gracious Phaeacians welcome him with great hospitality. The king, Alcinous, and his court listen to his story and bestow him with gifts. Then they take him to Ithaca. Home, at last!

One of the reasons it’s taken so long for Odysseus to return to Ithaca is because he provoked Poseidon by blinding his son, Polyphemus. When the god of the sea learns the Phaeacians have helped Odysseus, he punishes them by turning the ship that carried him home to stone.

Poseidon also wanted to lift a ring of mountains around their island, but Zeus discouraged him. The mere sight of the ship “rooted in stone” just off the harbor is warning enough for the Phaeacians to never take castaways in their ships again.

If Poseidon had surrounded Phaeacia with mountains it would have been completely cut off from the rest of the world. No chance to travel. Nor to receive travelers. A tragic fate for a nation that lives by trade.

And like islands, thus mountains

Since mountains are higher than the surrounding land, their summits and slopes tend to be colder and wetter. Animals and plants adapted to these different conditions are effectively isolated. For this reason, the distribution of organisms (also known as biogeography) of mountains is like that of islands.

A tepui in the Canaima National Park of Venezuela. Photo by DamianFinol via Wikimedia Commons.

Tepuis are found in southern Venezuela, north- eastern Guyana, southern Suriname, and northern Brazil. They’re tall (1000 to 3000m) and their sides are steep cliffs.

Tepuis are also ancient…

Now, age is pretty relative when we talk about tepuis, as you’ll soon see.

Tepuis are the remnants of a sandstone massif that covered the continent of Gondwana 450 million years ago. After Gondwana broke up into Africa, America and Eurasia, the sandstone eroded and became a series of tabletop mountains 70 to 90 million years ago.

Tepuis are Sky Islands 

Like islands, they represent a fragmented habitat for plants and animals. More than half the vascular plants (ones that have support tissues) are endemic, that is, they’re only found there, as are many animals.

In the Pixar movie Up, the characters travel to a tepui in a house carried by balloons. Cool, huh! I wonder if the wonderful imaginary bird Kevin was a Lost World relic.

Inspired by their age and strangeness, Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) wrote about dinosaurs roaming the tepuis in his novel The Lost World.

No sign of dinosaurs so far

But, given the abundance of endemic species, scientists have proposed the Lost World hypothesis, whereby the ecosystems on the summit may have been there since before the tepuis separated (70-90 million years ago).

Others assert that the isolation hasn’t been absolute. Organisms could have moved between different elevations on a given tepuis. Birds, insects and (seeds of) flowering plants may have gone to other tepuis by air: island-hopping.

So a good test of the Lost World hypothesis would be an animal unlikely to island-hop, say a tree frog.

What the tree frog told us

According to a 2012 genetic study, four species of the tree frog Tepuihyla shared an ancestor less than 5.3 million years ago. Some of the studied populations were separated as recently at 2.5 million years ago.

Excuse me, is that recent? Um, yes, compared to 70 million years. Most importantly it falsifies the Lost World hypothesis for this tree frog genus.

Other populations of Tepuihyla appear to have moved up or down the slope a few thousand years ago coinciding with changes in climate.

For more information, Carl Zimmer wrote an excellent NYTimes article on the study.

The Lost World hypothesis is not completely disproven

There may be populations that were separated when the tepuis formed, but the genetic studies haven’t been carried out. What has been proven is that the ecosystem includes recent additions.

Back to the Phaeacians

In other words, if a ring of mountains had been raised by Poseidon to isolate the island of the Phaeacians, it wouldn’t have been impenetrable. As Arthur Conan Doyle put it in The memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893):

“Excellent,” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he.



Arachne’s story, and the stories woven within

To spin a tale… To weave a narrative… These common metaphors spring from the essence of language. The word text comes from texere, the Latin word for weaving. Spinning and weaving go hand in hand with metaphor and storytelling.

Spiders, who weave webs to capture their prey — much as an artist or story-teller aims to capture the attention of the viewer or reader, are the daughters of Arachne, who challenged Athena, the goddess of weaving and wisdom, to a contest of skill.

In his MetamorphosisOvid (43BCE-~17CE) tells us that Arachne, daughter of a humble shepherd and wool dyer, weaved so wondrously that the nymphs themselves came out to watch her work, creating tapestries that seemed alive.

Ah, hubris…

At first glance, the story of Arachne is a cautionary tale of hubris: yet another mortal daring to scorn a god’s superiority and being punished for her arrogance.  Even when Athena appears as an old woman to warn her, a scoffing Arachne re-issues her challenge.

And so the two weavers set to work. Athena weaves the story of her own power, how she prevailed in the naming of Athens, the twelve gods in their glory, and, in the four corners: the dire fates of humans who presumed to confront the gods.

Speaking truth to power

Arachne starts weaving Europa’s rape by Zeus in the form of a bull who carried her across the sea to Crete, a picture so vibrant you can hear the waves and feel the heat from the bull’s flank. She continues with other rapes using deception and force by Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and Chronos.

Athena’s fury in Arachne by Peter Paul Rubens, 1626. Source. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Athena is furious- at both Arachne’s skill and her insolence. She tears at Arachne’s tapestry and loom, raises her hand holding the shuttle, and strikes the weaver three times in the forehead.

For some reason, Arachne now backs down

Perhaps because it’s one thing to best a god and another to be at the receiving end of their wrath. Perhaps because the blows confuse her, or are somehow magical.

Perhaps because she’s proven her point.

Arachne slips a noose around her neck to hang herself.

But Athena lifts her up…

and sprinkling her with poison, curses her and her daughters to live, always hanging, always spinning.

Arachne’s arms and legs shrink. Her hair spreads to cover her body with stubble. Her thumbs stick to her sides and her fingers grow and grow and grow until she becomes a spider.

Enter the spider

Notwithstanding Ovid’s origin story, arachnids evolved at least 400 million years ago. As did Arachne, her daughters spin. They’re not the only ones. Other arthropods (the phylum that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans) build cocoons with their silk- a poetic word for protein fibers.

But like Arachne, who is thought to have invented fishing nets and traps for hunting, spiders use their silk to protect their eggs and as draglines, and also for their webs.

Spider webs do many things

They’re used for courtship, to regulate temperature, and as defense, but mostly, they capture prey. The web has to intercept, stop, and retain the flying insects which make up the bulk of a spider’s diet.

Photo by Luc Viatour /, via Wikimedia Commons.

To meet these needs, spiders produce up to seven different types of silk with diverse properties. For example, draglines and the outer portions of the web are built with silk that matches the tensile strength of steel. The silk used in the web’s center can reversibly stretch as far as rubber.

Spider silk isn’t just hard to break– requiring 7 to 10 times the strength used to fracture Kevlar- its healing and anticoagulant properties have been recognized since antiquity when it was used to bandage wounds .

The interest in medical and military applications comes as no surprise. However spiders are small and produce proportionately small amounts of silk. (Check out this video from the American Museum of Natural History about an amazing golden cloth woven from the silk of a million spiders.)

Instead of leaving their structures behind, they eat their webs to reuse the material. Attempts to “farm” spiders are challenged by their individualism and their tendency to cannibalism when there’s not enough food. Like Arachne, spiders aren’t meek and subservient.

For now, like in the past 400 million years, Arachne’s daughters sit and spin, endlessly building and re-building their webs.

So what does Arachne tell us?

Like spiders re-creating their webs each day, there’s always more to the story of Arachne.  Over the years and the many re-tellings and re-visionings, Arachne’s tale has inspired discussion of arrogance versus ambition, art versus craft, myth versus reality, the teacher-student relationship, and the place of common people and of women.

Las Hilanderas, circa 1667. For a large version. El Prado Museum. Source “The Yorck Project,” via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Spinners (Las Hilanderas), one of the last paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), he takes the role of Arachne, while also using her story to examine these topics.

What is happening and who are all those people?

Good question! Interpretations abound, thanks to the many figures and objects, and the action in a split composition. Initially, the prosaic and unpretentious figures of women spinning in the shadowed foreground suggested a direct representation of the tapestry studio of Santa Isabel.

But then, what about the background? In a brightly lit alcove a few steps above the foreground, a woman presents  a tapestry depicting the rape of Europa while facing an armored figure with raised arm.

In the 40s, Diego Angulo Íñiguez proposed that the painting was the story of Arachne and Athena: the two spinning in the foreground, the punishment in the background. Others have argued that Penelope is in the foreground , or that it represents the tale of Lucretia.

Within the story, more stories

In a feat of meta-fiction that would make Arachne proud, Velázquez seeds the painting with references to art from the past, from the visible whir of the spinning wheel in the foreground (a direct response to the challenge of artists to depict movement as noted by Jan Baptist Bedaux) to the reflection of Michelangelo’s ignudi  in the woman holding the curtain and the spinner in the white blouse.

Arachne’s tapestry in the background is a copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa, part of the Spanish royal family’s collection at the time. Here again, Velázquez acknowledges the masters that came before by making a copy, as Rubens had done years before.

Velázquez goes one step further by placing his copy within a story about paying obeisance to teachers -or not, and about the role of art. He also obscures it with figures, but not so much we can’t recognize the tumbling headlong putti.

And in the foreground, larger than life: the everyday work of spinning women. Ortega y Gassett  said of Velázquez that he managed to

convertir lo cotidiano en permanente sorpresa

That is: He turned the everyday into permanent surprise. In doing so, he showed us that surprise – and beauty and art– is also to be found in the day-to-day.

From Velázquez’s Arachne to today

Arachne will always signify the human desire to excel and the courage to speak out. She also tells us, like her daughters the spiders, of the endless everyday work of making, consuming and re-creating. Invention and re-invention.

According to Ortega, Velázquez discovered that

 … la realidad se diferencia del mito en que no está nunca acabada.

Reality is distinguished from myth in that reality is never finished. 

Perhaps myths are never finished either.