In the eyes and ears of ancient people, the Sea felt frightening. When they needed to travel through the sea, pass through the storms, and find safe places for harbours, they imagined all kind of creatures. It was that simple. They believed in the superpowers of the sea being so superior to the humans. Welcome to the Stories of the Sea, a part of the Art of Discovery program.
Time machine to the past: from Vitamin Sea to the Old Man of the Sea
A few years ago, the creative-sounding “vitamin sea” became a hype hashtag, a fight between social media posters, between different summer holiday choices and possibilities. From Croatian or Greek islands, to Bahamas and Maldives, photos were popping up with seemingly happy holidays scenes.
However, the sea is much more than a summer joy. It is the source of life, after all. Ancient Greeks had to deal with the sea to transport goods, from island to island, as Greece has hundreds of them. The concept of holidays only came around many thousands of years later.
So if we turn on the time machine to travel to the past, we will easily reach the destination on which people think the sea is scary. From the stormy waves and never ending wind, we will see all kinds of creatures popping up, making the sea unrest.
See also: Poseidon temple, a Sanctuary to the Sea
The Ocean Dynasty
Have you ever read stories about Greek gods and mythical creatures? If yes, then you likely know that they likely served as an inspiration to the contemporary soap operas, as they were all “their own” mothers, fathers, siblings, children, and so. To give only a small quick glance, I will tell you something about the base of our sea stories, the oceans.
Oceanus (Okeanos) was the Titan, the son of Uranus and Gea, the Sky and Earth. His daughters were Oceanides, the nymphs with diverse roles. His sons were Potamoi, the river gods. One of his daughters, Doris, became the wife of the Old Man of the Sea, Nereid, Oceanus’ half-brother and her own half-uncle. Awkward, isn’t it?
Nereid’s and Doris’ daughter were known as Nereides, the sea nymphs who served as inspiration to fairy tales about mermaids. Although the name sounds similar, it is not in reality, as the word mermaid relates to the combination of Old English words meer + maid, lady of the sea. Nevertheless, it is yet another proof how mythologies are related.
See also: From Symposium, to idiots, from technology to symphony: The fascinating words of Greek origin
Odysseus and Cyclops
In a supermarket in Athens, I saw a bottle of wine named Kanenas. It came with a slogan saying “a myth in the bottle“. Soon after, I got an explanation about the meaning. Kanenas means “no one” in Modern Greek. In Ancient Greek, the word for that was “outis“. The myth refers to Odysseus, who once got stuck on an island, imprisoned by Cyclopes – allegedly on the island of Serifos.
Serifos is one of the Cyclades islands, a big group extending between Athens and Crete. The name Cyclades relate to the fact that as a group they form a circle, as κύκλος [kyklos] in Greek equals a circle. These islands possessed one of the earliest Helladic culture and as a result they are featured in many myths.
Cyclopes were mythical creatures of horror, the ones that had one rounded eye located in the middle of their foreheads. It sounds similar to the Cyclades, right? It is true, because both words have kyklos – cycle in their root.
The myths of cyclopes originate from an extremely rare congenital defect that may happen in animals and humans, resulting in a cavity above the nose. Most babies born with that defect don’t survive for more than a few hours. However, the myth imagines adults with that condition, as being surely some scary creatures with superpowers.
Sweet wine and Stories of the Sea
According to the myth, the Cyclope Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, captured and imprisoned Odysseus and asked him about his name. “Outis”, said Odysseus, meaning “no one”. After that, he gave the Cyclope a sweet wine.
The drunk Polyphemus fell asleep, helping Odysseus to blind him and escape. When other cyclopes asked him who made it to him, he was only able to say “no one”. “Kanenas” in Modern Greek, this wine tells the story.
I think the wine is a perfect company for enjoying and appreciating stories of the sea, right?
Perseus and Medusa
The Stories of the Sea are not complete without the myth of Perseus and Medusa. This myth clearly relates to the mentioned island of Serifos, where the king ordered the murder of the terrifying Medusa, the creature that turns everyone who looked at her in the stone.
I wonder how did they imagine such a being? Why anyone in the sea would want to turn anyone into the rock? I guess it was because they were generally afraid of drowning, and therefore becoming surrounded by the salty seawater.
Perseus had a help from goddess Athena, as she stood in a way to allow the reflection of the monster in her polished bronze shield – otherwise Perseus would have become a stone!
As the monster was finally beheaded, two babies were born from her body, fruits of her relationship with Poseidon (gosh!)
Medusa inspired the description of the jellyfish in some languages, due to her usual looks on artworks.
Finally, this overwhelming article came to an end! Do you want more stories of the sea? Let me know in comments!
- Aliki Samara-Kauffmann: Η θάλασσα – The sea of gods, heroes and meningitis ancient Greek art, Kapon Editions, Athens, Greece, 2008
- Alkistis Halikia: The color of myth (colouring book with stories) – information on pottery from the sample
- A few Wikipedia article, just for information