What is Pluto? What is Europa? Pluto used to be a planet. It is now a “dwarf planet,” whatever that is. And Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter. Jupiter was, of course, the chief Roman god, who abducted the maiden Europa. Pluto was his brother and the god of the underworld.
Astronomy and mythology are so thoroughly intertwined as to be the twin snakes on the caduceus.
We look up at the night sky and see the ancient stories played out there: Orion the hunter, Hercules the hero, Perseus and Andromeda — the constellations are mostly named for the old tales.
And those stories inform so much of Western literature. Little outside the biblical stories and names so informs, and for so many millennia, our current culture. Name your kid Jason and you connect to the Golden Fleece.
But, if we cannot all agree on whether Pluto is a planet or not, it gets much much murkier when we talk about Pluto the ancient god.
This is because the version we have of classical mythology is a cleaned-up, streamlined, and simplified version. For most of us, there is a codified set of stories we learned in school, or read from Edith Hamilton, or, in past centuries, from Thomas Bulfinch. But those synoptic versions have always been a flashcard version of the real thing.
(I am reminded of a joke about American history: In grade school and high school, you are taught everything you should know about it; in college, you learn it is more complicated than that; in graduate school, you learn everything you know is wrong.)
For almost no Greek or Roman myth is there a single version of the story. For many, there are so many versions that your head spins. Take something as simple as the so-called Twelve Olympian Gods. Almost every ancient writer refers to them, the pantheon of most important gods. Yet, they don’t agree on which 12 gods live on the mountain. There are at least 15 gods among the 12 Olympians, and some scholars count more than 20.
(For the record, the most commonly named Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestos, Hermes, Hestia, Dionysos, Hades and Persephone. And sometimes, Herakles. That’s 15.)
The reasons for these inconsistencies and disagreements are complex, but in part comes from the origin of Greek religion: There was no single Greek state, but rather a loose group of cities around the Aegean who spoke Greek. Many had their own gods they worshipped, and when they visited other cities, they found other gods; they simply added the newly encountered deity to their list and the number of Greek gods grew. And even when they shared gods, they often told different stories about them. Writers from different places and different eras wrote different versions of the myths. No one seemed to think this was a problem.
This syncretistic impulse continued with the Romans who followed. They saw correspondences between their own gods and those of the Greeks, and so, Jupiter, the Roman father god, absorbed the stories of Zeus. Juno took over Hera, Mars took over Ares, Venus was the same as Aphrodite, etc. But the Roman gods were never quite exactly the same thing as the Greeks’.
Pluto is a great example of this tendency. In Hesiod, who wrote down an early version of Greek religion, the three brother gods split up the world into three kingdoms. Poseidon got the seas, Zeus got the skies and Hades got the underworld. They were all to share the dry land.
But, there was another god of the underworld already, and his name was Plouton. And since there were two mythic purposes to the underworld, it made sense there might be two gods. One was ruler of the dead and buried; the other was the god of those things we take from the ground: precious metals and food crops. So, Hades tended to be seen as the king of the dead and Plouton of mining and the wealth that we can dig out of the ground.
Yet, they were often confounded. Both get to use either name in various myths.
The Romans also had two underground deities, Orcus and Dis Pater. They blended both of them into Pluto. Except when they didn’t.
Is this confusing? Imagine what it was like for the ancient temple-goer. (Actually, for most in the ancient world, religion was a personal matter, with family gods to worship, or clan gods, and a less spiritual ritual paid to the civic gods, like Athena or Poseidon. And then, of course, there were the mystery cults, which so many took part in — these were more like the evangelistic sects we know today, handling snakes and speaking in tongues.)
The primary story told about Pluto, or Hades, is that he abducted Persephone, daughter of Demeter (or in Rome, Proserpina, daughter of Ceres) and took her to reign as queen in the underworld. Demeter (or Ceres) was so distraught over losing her daughter that she refused to allow the crops to grow on earth, and people were afraid of starving. An appeal to Zeus (or Jupiter, aka Jove) forced him to intercede and he brokered an agreement in which Persephone (or Proserpina — or Kore in other versions of the story) would spend part of the year with her mother and part of the year with Pluto, during which months, earth would suffer winter.
Of course, abductions are a common theme in ancient myth. Zeus abducted Europa, for instance, which is why now Europa is a moon of the planet Jupiter. Is it clear yet?
This myth of Persephone and Hades became the foundation of one of the mystery cults, the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated outside of Athens. It is, like so many mystery cults, a religion of death and rebirth.
It is also true that Greek and Roman writers used the myths for their own ends, and the versions of the myths we get in Greek tragedy are often purely invented by their playwrights to make a point.
The versions of popular myth that have been most common in Western literature are those cleaned up and prettified by Publius Ovidius Naso, who wrote what is probably the most influential book in the Western world after Homer and the Bible: The Metamorphoses, which is a collection of these stories, all arranged to make the case that everything in the world changes constantly. “Apollo hunted Daphne so, Only that she might laurel grow; And Pan did after Syrinx speed, Not as a nymph but for a reed.” We get the story of Narcissus turned to a daffodil, and that of King Midas turned to gold.
Writers ever since have drawn on these tales, shaping them to their ends, right up to John Updike and his Centaur, and Xena: Princess Warrior on TV. And let’s not forget PDQ Bach, who wrote Iphigenia in Brooklyn, with its famous recitativ and aria: “O ye gods! Who knows what it is to be running? Only he who is running knows; running knows, running knows.”
Now, there are versions in which this is presented as a rape and abduction, others in which this is a marriage ritual (there are many cultures in which a staged abduction is part of the courtship), and in other versions, Persephone is honored to be the queen. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
The 19th century saw Nathaniel Hawthorne rewrite some of these stories in his Tanglewood Tales and Wonder Book. It shows how differently stories can be understood in different eras. Hawthorne changed the myth to make it more Victorian and cute, so that Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, is a little girl, a cute little girl with a cute little curl. She is out one day picking beautiful flowers when the big god Pluto comes along in his chariot and offers to take the little girl to his rich castle.
In the 19th century, when sex was never discussed, little girls were always precious and innocent. But we read Pluto’s words with a different sensibility:
“Do not be afraid,” said he, with as cheerful a smile as he knew how to put on. “Come! Will you not like to ride a little way with me, in my beautiful chariot?”
Pluto keeps her in his palace and gives her toys to play with, while her mother searches desperately all over the land for her missing daughter. Then, it was charming; now, it’s an Amber Alert and a face on a milk container. We see things differently.
To conclude, there never was “a” Greek mythology, or “a” Roman mythology; what there was was a morass of local tales, often contradictory, which has given writers, artists and musicians a rich warehouse of materials to draw from, for at least 2500 years.
Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.