This text is taken from “Michael Spafford Epic Works” catalogue. These descriptions are very brief, and meant only as simple overviews of very complex myths. The painter in no way claims expertise on mythology. There are narrative aspects of these particular myths that interested him and set up intriguing technical challenges.
BATTLE OF THE GODS AND GIANTS
The Gigantomachy was part of the cycle of Cosmogonic succession myths that explained the formation of the world under the primal gods, their overthrow by the Titans, and the subsequent ascendancy of the gods of Olympus. Many ancient tales were told of the cataclysmic battle between the Olympian gods, assisted by mortals, and the Giants (Gigantes), a race of monstrous creatures who sprang from the blood of the mutilated primal god, Uranus (who had been castrated by his son, the Titan Cronus). Beings of superhuman strength and size, the Giants fought for the Titans, but both were overthrown by the Olympian gods after a ten-year struggle. In aiding the gods, heroic men begin to rise.
Virtually all of the gods of antiquity figure in this sprawling legend, as well as great geological landmarks (at one point, the island of Sicily is flung by Athena, crushing a Giant). The war might have gone on forever, so powerful were all the forces involved, had not an oracle declared that Giants could be defeated if the gods enlisted the aid of mortal men. Hercules and Dionysus, sons of Zeus by mortal women joined in the battle, and soon turned the tide. They were rewarded, it was said, with immortality for their courage.
The legends of Bellerophon contain many familiar elements: youthful exile from his homeland, jealousy and resentment from the powerful, and a long series of heroic quests in order to secure expiation and honor. His basic tale involves the tasks laid upon him at the court of King Iobates of Lycia, who suspected Bellerophon of the crime of the seduction of this daughter. The first was to slay the terrifying monster Chimera, was terrorizing his kingdom. With the advice of a seer and the favor of Athena, he was able to capture the magical steed. Together, they attacked the Chimera, who was finally killed with a spear topped with lead, which was melted by the fire in the throat of the monster. Bellerophon was emboldened by his many triumphs and his hubris grew along with his fame. Prideful, he began to believe he deserved to enter the realm of the gods and took flight for Mount Olympus. This presumption greatly angered Zeus, who sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to tumble all the way back to Earth.
THE BIRTH OF ATHENA
Zeus came to lust after Metis, one of the Titans who was imbued with magical powers and known for cunning and wisdom. Metis tried to evade his amorous intentions, using her transformative powers to change her form many times. He prevailed, but feared the consequences. It had been prophesied that Metis, seen as a primal cosmogenic force, would bear extremely powerful children. Zeus, in the form of a frog, tricked Metis into turning herself into a fly, and promptly swallowed her. Metis, however, had already conceived. In time, Zeus began to develop terrible pain in his head which was only relieved when Hermes took a wedge and split open his skull. Athena sprang out, a grown and powerful woman in full armor. The favored maiden daughter of the god of heaven, she became the goddess, variously, of wisdom, protection, and victory in warfare. Many powers were ascribed to her, and she became, with Zeus and Apollo, the Greek triumvirate embodiment of all divine authority.
Coatlicue (Nahuatl: “Serpent Skirt”) was one of the most powerful manifestations of the primordial earth goddess of the Aztec religion. Also known as “mother of the gods”, she gave birth to the eternally battling sibling gods who represent the moon, the stars, and the sun (Huitzilopochtli, one of the primary deities of the Aztec). Both creator and destroyer, she was the source of life and the insatiable devourer of everything that lives. She, like many in the Aztec/Mexica pantheon, was said to feed on corpses; many sacrifical rituals were performed in her honor. Her manifestation was terrifying: her head, severed in battle, was replaced by two gigantic facing serpents and her hands were claws. She wore a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace of human hands, hearts, and skulls.
The Chimera is a mythical creature of much disputed aspect and origin. It is generally accepted to be female and one of many monstrous progeny of the Echidna, the “Mother of Monsters”, who’s other children included the Lion of Nemea, Cerberus, and the Gorgon Medusa. These monsters populate many tales of heroic deeds. The Chimera is generally said to have the body of a goat, the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent. The earthbound Chimera was ultimately slain from the air by the hero Bellerophon, on the back of the winged horse, Pegasus. Pegasus was a mythical creature who sprang to life from the blood spattered when another hero, Perseus, decapitated the Gorgon Medusa, who was sibling to the Chimera.
CRONUS DEVOURING HIS CHILDREN
The Titan Cronus, who had castrated and banished to his father, Uranus, to heaven was told that he in turn would be overthrown by one of his children. As a way of preventing this, he decided to swallow them all: Hestia, Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. At the birth of the last child, his wife Thea gave him a stone in place of the infant and hid the baby, Zeus, away. Ultimately Zeus gives Cronus a potion and the Titan regurgitates all of the children, setting them loose to become gods themselves. Zeus himself became ruler of Olympus, supplanting Cronus as the most powerful of beings.
EUROPA AND THE BULL
A very ancient mythical figure of disputed origin, Europa was, in Greek myth, said to be a princess from Phoenicia, daughter of the king of Tyre. Zeus, enamored of her great beauty, came to her in the form of a tame white bull amongst her father’s herds. Gathering flowers with her attendants, she was soon seduced, caressing his white flanks and then climbing upon his back. Zeus carried her thus into the sea and away to Crete (a place known for it’s reverence of the sacred bull). This is one of the myths of transformation, one of the many unions of Zeus with mortal woman while in the form of an animal. There was, in Greek myth, little difference between seduction and ravishment, and “The Rape of Europa” has been a subject of poets and artists since the Romans adopted the tale of the “Raptus” substituting Jupiter for Zeus.
Icarus was the son of the master craftsman, Daedulus, creator of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Imprisoned on Crete, the father and son sought escape by means of wings constructed of feathers and wax. Daedalus warned his son of complacency and hubris, asking that he fly neither too high nor too low, given the dangers of the sea’s damp and the the sun’s heat. Icarus, glorying in the triumph of flight, ignored this warning as he climbed ever higher. When the wax in his wings melted, he tumbled out of the sky and fell into the sea where he drowned.
Laocoön was a priest in the temple of Poseidon with Poseidon who he warned the Trojans against accepting the immense wooden horse left in Troy by the Greeks. In his immortal words “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts” Poseidon was infuriated, as he bitterly opposed Troy and wanted it destroyed. As Laocoön and his sons were preparing to sacrifice a bull at the altar of Poseidon, the god decided to punish him for interfering with destiny and caused two winged serpents to come up from the sea, wrap them in their coils around and crush them. The Trojans took this as a sign to ignore the priest’s warning and immediately brought the horse inside the city walls. The Greeks, hidden within the hollow horse, emerged in the night to infiltrate and conquer the complacent Trojans.
THE LABORS OF HERCULES
The quintessential Greek mythological hero was Hercules (Herakles). In the epics of Homer, he was the son of Zeus, son of a mortal woman. The noble man taking on an endless series of terrifying, insurmountable trials has deeply defined the Euro-American concept of heroism.
The best known tale of his exploits has become The Labors of Hercules. Zeus’ wife, Hera, saw Hercules as a symbol of her husband’s infidelities and often worked against him. She forced him to serve a weak king, Eurystheus and then drove him mad, causing him to murder his wife and children. As penance and humiliation, he was assigned the task of completing a set of inexplicable labors such as overcoming a monstrous being or accomplishing an impossible task. All were accomplished by wile, bravery and incredible strength. Though the order and number of the Labors has varied over time, the central collection of twelve remains common.
The Twelve Labors of Hercules as done by Michael Spafford:
- Slaying of the Nemean Lion.
- Vanquishing the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
- Capturing the marauding Erymanthian Boar
- Destroying the vicious, iron-beaked Stymphalian Birds
- Chasing down the fleet, golden-horned Ceryneian Hind
- Cleaning the dung out of the Augeian Stables.
- Subduing the Mad Bull of Crete
- Abolishing the flesh-eating Mares of Diomedes
- Stealing the jewel-encrusted belt from Hippolyte, the Queen of the Amazons.
- Crushing the immortal giant Antaeus
- Kidnapping the ferocious three-headed hound of Hell, Cerebrus
- Overcoming Death
LEDA AND THE SWAN
Leda and Swan is a creation myth. As in Europa and the Bull, Zeus takes the form of an animal in order to deceive or seduce a mortal. Zeus fell in love with Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus. king of Sparta. He assumed the form of a swan and encountered her one evening as she was bathing in a pool. This meeting, as well as a later union with her husband, produced two eggs. One contained Helen of Troy and Pollux, both the children thus of Zeus. The other egg contained Castor and Clytemnestra, offspring of her husband, Tyndareus.
Minos, powerful King of Crete, offended Poseidon who retaliated by causing his Queen to lust after a white bull. The offspring of that union was the Minotaur, a terrifying creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Minos was advised by an oracle to imprison the Minotaur in a vast labyrinth, from which there was no exit. Another son of Minos was later assassinated by Athenians while taking part in games there. The Cretan king threatened war, unless a sacrifice of retribution was made at regular intervals. Seven courageous youths and beautiful maidens were to be given to Crete and sent into the labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur. The legendary hero Theseus, beloved of Athens, swore to slay the beast. He was able to do so with the aid of the enamored princess Ariadne, who gave him a ball of string. Tying the string to the doorpost, he slew the beast after a great battle at the heart of the labyrinth, and was able to retrace his steps.
Theseus, Perseus and Herakles (Hercules) were all ancient Greek heroes whose acts of near-magical bravery fill many legends. They share characteristics which were similar (for example: they were all fathered by Zeus of human mothers) and are probably variations on the same prototype.
Perseus was the son of Danae by Zeus (who visited her in a shower of gold). One of his tasks was to slay the Gorgon Medusa, a monstrous being with serpents for hair, a protruding tongue and enormous teeth, so hideous that all who gazed upon her turned to stone. After tricking both Hags and Nymphs out of their caches of magical weapons Perseus was given a magical shield by Athena, his patroness, which allowed him to look at and behead her. Using this magical shield as a mirror, he was able to indirectly identify and behead Medusa. The winged horse Pegasus sprang from the decapitated Gorgon’s blood.
ROMULUS AND REMUS
Roman legend has it that Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of the god Mars and a royal vestal virgin, daughter and niece of rival nobles in the ancient Latin cities near the future site of Rome. The breaking of the sacred vows of chastity apparently warranted extreme punishment for mother and sons; They were all thrown into the Tiber River to die. As luck would have it, the twins were found tangled in the roots of a wild vine at the foot of the Palatine Hill by a she-wolf who took them to her den and suckled them until they were discovered and raised by a herdsman’s family. Natural leaders together set out to found the city of Rome, though Remus was eventually killed, perhaps by his twin, in the seemingly continual conflicts of the time. Legend now holds Romulus was the founder of Rome around 750 BC.
URANUS, GAEA AND CRONUS
In ancient Grecian cosmogony, Uranus (the sky) and Gaea (the earth) gave birth to twelve Titans, of whom Cronus was the last. Uranus was horrified by his children and kept them all buried deep within the earth. With Gaea’s encouragement, Cronus castrated Uranus. With this act, the firmament was created and the earth became full of life and energy. As Uranus hurtled into the heavens he cursed Cronus, predicting that the same fate would happen to him. That is why Cronus later devoured his children.