Mythology Monday: Beauty and the Beast

It’s no great secret that Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairy tale. It has themes of transformation, sacrifice and redemption, plus one of the smartest fairy tale heroines ever. What’s not to love?

Beauty and the Beast appeared in its current (or relatively current) form in 1740, when it was written by Gabrielle–Suzanne de Villeneuve. It was a critique on the sale of women into marriage, never knowing “if they’d find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.”  Since then, it’s transformed from a tale in which the genuinely fierce and beastly hero must change for love, to one where the heroine must learn to love despite appearances, to, well, the Disney version. (God save us all.)

The story takes its cue from myths that were told centuries before, when Hades kidnapped Persephone. A powerful man, a pariah, banished to a solitary realm. A girl taken from her loving family to alleviate his deep loneliness and perhaps save his soul. While the story can certainly be related as one of violence and rage, there are versions that are more sympathetic to Hades’ desperate act.

*sniffle* I’m getting all emotional just thinking about it!

Sacrifice is one of my favorite themes – a tangible demonstration of what love is worth and what we will give up for its sake. The Beast knows the his heart will break and he will die without his Beauty, yet he lets her go so that she can rejoin her family. And Beauty, torn between love for her family and her growing love for the dangerous monster who needs her, knows that choosing one will irrevocably harm the other.

Redemption is another element of the story. The original Beast is truly a beast. Dangerous, vicious, threatening to the heroine both physically and sexually. Yet under for influence and for her sake, he puts aside the animal and reclaims the man he once was.

Transformation is the heart of Beauty and the Beast. The Beast is the obvious character for this transformation, but in Robin McKinley’s second interpretation of the story, Rose Daughter, the change is not the one we’ve learned to expect. Nonetheless, the animal is rendered human by love for his Beauty – not mere desire or animal passion, but a heart fully given to another’s keeping.

In the best stories, Beauty isn’t always perfect, sweet, forgiving and saintly. She must change from a young girl occupied with her own thoughts and plans into one who is capable of seeing what lies beneath and beyond the surface. To facing up to danger, and being willing to both stand for what is right, as well as bend to what may be. There are no easy choices for her in this story and it requires a strong, smart, steady heroine.

There is no shortage of Beauty and the Beast stories and each one brings something new to the table. I can’t think of another fairy tale that can handle so much revision, yet remain true to its heart.

What’s your favorite version?

Mythology Monday: Slavic Mythology

Sure enough, there be gods in Eastern Europe. From Macedonia (just above Greece) all the way to Latvia (just south of Finland) and including more than a dozen countries both large and small with ever changing regimes, borders and dialects.

In fact, there is a movement in the Baltic (Northern Slavic) countries to return to an ethnic polytheistic pagan religion called Romuva, which worships the old gods and is important in preserving Baltic folk traditions.

If you remember, we talked about Basque mythology recently and one of the problems in researching is that Christianity had been around for so long that many of the traditions were forgotten. You know, what with the Inquisition burning thousands of Basque pagans and all. The issues surrounding research into Slavic mythology have some of the same issues. Not necessarily due to the Spanish Inquisition – totally unexpected – but because of centuries of Christian influence in the area. In addition, the Slavs had no written language prior to their Christianization, and many stories were no doubt lost in the mists of time.

One thing that struck me in my study was the recurrence of a World Tree, which we’ve seen in Norse mythology and in Central American mythology. As in other cultures, the tree – an oak this time – was symbolic of the different levels of existence. The crown represented the heavenly deities, the trunk was the realm of mortals and the roots of the tree stretched into the underworld.

As opposed to many of the cultures we’ve studied, the underworld of Slavic mythology was actually very nice – not a world of fire and judgment, but of eternal spring. The tree was also organized along the four cardinal directions of the wind (horizontal axes) and the various levels of the tree (vertical axes). To correspond, there was the three-headed god, Triglav, the god of prophecy and soothsaying, and Svantevit, the four-headed god of both war and harvest. An unusual combination.

As to major gods, there were a few. Perun was the top guy. The god of the thunder, lightning and fire. He was also a dry god. This is important in a minute. He drove a chariot across the sky (Apollo, much?), hurled a hammer (Thor, much?) at evil spirits and lived at the top of the World Tree. His opposite number is Veles, the god of the underworld. Naturally, they were enemies. Veles was a god of peasants, cattle and wealth. He was a wet god. Represented as a dragon or serpent, he would steal Perun’s cattle. Dry periods were the result of Veles thievery and trickery of Perun. When Perun went after him to get his cattle back, a great battle would ensue – big storms with lots of thunder and lightning. The battles would result in the defeat/death of Veles – when his body was split open by Perun’s sword, the great rains would fall and order could be restored.

There are a number of smaller deities who controlled or symbolized other aspects of life for the Slavs. Czernobog represented the darkness of winter and was accordingly a bleak and forbidding god. His position was overtaken in the spring by the other half of himself, Bielobog, a god of sun, light, and life. The Czernobog/Bielobog deity, however, is unsubstantiated by modern research because of the dearth of proof. Indeed, while Czernobog is fairly certain to have existed within the pantheon, the only theory of Bielobog’s existence is merely the conjecture of a 12th century priest who assumed that the evil of Czernobog *must* have some balancing force – not necessarily true.

The Zorya were a trilogy of sister goddesses who symbolized the passage of the sun and moon. They are the Morning, the Evening, and the Midnight Star, guarding the gates of heaven for the passage of the sun. They also stand guard over the doomsday hound, who, if he ever breaks his chain, will eat the constellation of Ursa Minor. If he ever does, the universe will end.

The Slavs also have a rich and varied folklore consisting of goblins, fairies, witches, dragons and firebirds. For more information on that, see this University of Alberta link and this one from the University of Alabama. Those are also good sources for the mythology we’ve discussed here. See also the Slavic Pantheon. Wikipedia, as always, is a good jumping off point for further research, but my other two favorite pantheon sources, Godchecker and Encyclopedia Mythica, are sadly lacking in this area.

This article is reprinted from my original posting at Beyond the Veil on Aug 31, 2007.

Mythology Monday: The Gorgons

Snake haired, fanged furies of Greek myth. Popular mythology concentrates on Medusa, but there’s much more to these ladies than we learn from monster movies.

In fact, there’s some doubt as to whether there are one or three of them. And if there are three, why are two immortal (Sthenno and Euryale) and poor Medusa the only mortal?

The tales of one Gorgo come from the oldest myths, told by the poet Homer. The head of the Gorgo was taken to form the aegis of the shield of Athena. Even Euripides believed in only one monster. It’s Hesiod who transformed the tale to include three sisters, the daughters of Phorkys and Keta. He portrayed them with snakes and fangs, but Aeschylus gave them wings.

The early Classical poets agreed on one thing. The Gorgons were horrible to observe. Some of the images were incredibly creepy. It wasn’t until the later Classical period that poets and artists humanized Medusa from a monster to a beautiful, but cursed woman.

So back to my original question. How do you end up with two out of three immortal daughters? Wicked bad luck, is what I’m thinking.

Mortal Medusa was a beauty, the stories say. Some believe that she compared her beauty to that of Athena. We’ve already seen how that works out. *cough*Arachne*cough* But others feel that her fate can be laid at the feet of another god. One who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Medusa was a servant of Athena, but the great sea god Poseidon was enchanted by her beauty, so he seduced her in Athena’s temple. The virgin goddess turned her eyes away in horror, then punished Medusa by turning her lovely hair to snakes.

WTH?!? Girl has sex, so you turn her into a monster? Wow. That’s some seriously messed up logic (as well as a seriously uptight and repressed goddess), but Medusa’s tragedy doesn’t end there.

Now she’s even more super special than just being the gorgeous daughter of gods. No. Now she can turn men to stone with a glance because they’re so filled with dread at her hideous appearance.

See, now she’s a weapon, and we know how gods and warriors and heroes get all excited about new weapons. King Polydektes had challenged Perseus to bring him the head of the Gorgon, so he set off on his heroic quest, aided by Hermes, Athena (traitor!) and Hades.

The Graiaie guarded the cave where the Gorgons slept, but they had only one eye between them. Perseus stole the eye and bargained it for entrance to the cave. He used the reflection of his polished shield to find Medusa and cut off her head with one stroke.

However, in her death, Medusa gave birth to new life. The winged horse Pegasus and the giant Khrysaor sprang from her death-wound.

Perseus then brought her head back to his enemies, flying over Libya to get home. As he flew, drops of the Gorgon’s blood fell to the sand, creating fatally poisonous vipers in the desert there.

Medusa’s head was used to vanquish armies as well as the odious Polydektes, then turned over to Athena as the centerpiece for her aegis.

The End. *sniffle* She picked the wrong guy and died for it. No HEA for our girl Medusa.

But…could there be? I’ll let you know when I finish writing my current story, inspired by Medusa’s tale.

This article is reprinted from my original posting at Beyond the Veil on May 15, 2009.

Mythology Monday: The Labyrinth

I think most of us know the story of the Minotaur.

The Minotaur was the offspring of Pasiphae (the wife of King Minos of Crete) and the Cretan Bull. Aphrodite gave Minos a perfect bull so that he could sacrifice it to her, but he decided to keep it instead. To punish him, the goddess made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. Insert bestiality here and the Minotaur was born, the offspring of a human and a monster.

Minos had the monstrous child placed at the center of a labyrinth constructed by Daedelus and life went on until Minos’s[1] son was killed by the Athenians in battle. Minos won the war and to punish the Athenians, he commanded that they send their seven best young men and seven loveliest young women to be sacrificed to the beast. They were released in the labyrinth and consumed by the Minotaur.

After a few of these sacrifices, the hero Theseus decided that enough was enough. He went to Crete where Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with him. She gave him the key to the labyrinth and a ball of string to help him find his way back. Theseus slew the Minotaur, led the Athenian youths out of the maze, and escaped Crete with them and Ariadne. (At this point, Theseus ceases to be heroic because he abandons Ariadne on the isle of Naxos. Jerk. She curses him to forget which color sails to raise on his way home and when his dad sees the black sails, he assumes Theseus is dead and throws himself off a cliff. Good start, bad ending.)

Anyway…back to the labyrinth. While the maze of the Minotaur is a myth, there is substantial archaeological evidence to suggest that there truly was a labyrinth at the Minoan palace of Knossos. The palace actually WAS the labyrinth![2] The building was arranged so that it was virtually impossible for someone unfamiliar with the layout to navigate it. That doesn’t really explain the whole bull-man thing, but it lends the ring of truth to the idea of the maze.

There are mazes from Ancient Egypt, as well. The labyrinth at Hawara[3] that was, according to Herodotus, “…it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me….” [4]

This labyrinth was originally constructed as a mortuary hall and built over several generations. The oldest name recorded at the temple was that of Amenemhat III, who also built the “Black Pyramid.” The burial temples of the pharaohs were never forthright and even the contemporary archaeologist “Dr Zahi Hawass has said that when he first entered this pyramid he had a rope tied around his ankle to ensure he didn’t get lost inside.”[5]

While the labyrinth at Knossos is certainly one of the most famous, it’s not the only ancient labyrinth left for us by our ancestors. From the Bronze Age, there are petroglyphs of what’s now known as the Classical or 7-circuit maze in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

There are labyrinths from the Bronze Ages – even some the Neolithic Age – that can be found throughout Europe. The vast majority of them reflect the same Classical form, which suggests that the symbolism of the labyrinth was in some way universal. However, it’s impossible to know for certain. Labyrinths found in the Valle Camonica in Italy are usually found with scenes of battle and soldiers, where similar patterns in Galicia are surrounded by wild animals – a symbol of the hunt, perhaps.

Labyrinths aren’t specific to the continents across the Atlantic, however. The Tohono O’odham, a Native American tribe in Arizona have a symbol they call “The Man in the Maze.”[6] Petroglyphs of the maze, which features a man standing in the opening of the labyrinth, have been found at the Casa Grande Ruins.

But the real mystery is in the meaning of the labyrinth. As I mentioned, the Stone Age labyrinths seem to symbolize something…but what? Their meaning is unclear.

The Cretan labyrinth might have been merely the result of creative architecture, but was mythologized into a scenario of terror and death.

What, then, do those early symbols have in common with the labyrinths and mazes of the Middle Ages? And how do they connect to the modern-day resurgence of labyrinths as paths to inner peace?

The connection is entirely uncertain. People of many faiths today walk labyrinthine patterns to help clear their minds. It’s said that following the path to the center of a labyrinth will help untangle problems as you meditate.

Whatever the symbolism, current or past, they provide an artistic framework for the famous “What if?” How can a labyrinth inspire you?

An excellent resource on labyrinths can be found at Labyrinthos.net.


[1] Minos’s is correct according to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. The Chicago Manual of Style can go jump in a lake.

[2] http://www.explorecrete.com/Knossos/knossos.html

[3] http://www.labyrinthofegypt.com/art-science.html

[4] ^ Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, Book II, pp. 160–61.

[5] http://www.talkingpyramids.com/dahshur/pyramid-of-amenemhet-iii/

[6] http://www.reznetnews.org/article/several-tribes-share-man-maze-30010

This article is reprinted from my original posting at Beyond the Veil on Oct 1, 2010.