The myths behind Atlantis
A beginner's guide to the myths behind new adventure show, Atlantis, starting this Saturday on BBC One...
If there’s one thing we know about BBC One’s forthcoming Saturday night drama Atlantis, it’s that the characters we see week to week on the show won’t necessarily bear a lot of resemblance to their mythological Greek forebears. We can only assume that they will, nevertheless, have one or two things in common; we can at least confirm that Medusa will still end up with snakes for hair. And so, to whet your appetite for all things Atlantean, cast your eyes over our quick idiots’ guide to Atlantis’ main characters and their mythological counterparts.
The first rule of Greek mythology is that there are dozens of different versions of every story and numerous different tales attached to every hero or heroine, with no single version the ‘true’ or original one. Here, we’ve collected some of the more well-known stories attached to each character, but you’ll find plenty of other versions too!
Jason (Jack Donnelly)
Who was he? A prince from Iolcos, best known for leading the Argonauts.
Jason was brought up by the centaur Chiron, who apparently brought up a substantial proportion of the heroes of ancient Greece. We like to imagine he was running some kind of hero-school. Anyway, Jason eventually went home to confront his usurper-uncle Pelias, who had been told to beware a man wearing one shoe. When Jason appeared Cinderella-like, having lost his shoe carrying a goddess over a river, Pelias tried to get rid of him by sending him after the Golden Fleece, a shiny relic owned by King Aeetes of Colchis and guarded by a dragon.
Jason sailed off to Colchis on a boat called the Argo, accompanied by a gang of Greece’s greatest heroes (Castor, Pollux, Hercules, Orpheus …), known as the Argonauts (Argo-sailors). None of them were much use though, as they found they couldn’t get much done without the help of Aeetes’ daughter, the witch Medea. Medea betrayed her family to help Jason get the Fleece and they sailed back to Iolcos together.
Unfortunately, once there and rid of Pelias, Jason got bored of Medea and told her he was leaving her for a younger woman. Medea promptly murdered both their children to get back at him and flew off on a chariot pulled by dragons. Jason hung around for a while, but eventually died and was worshipped as a hero in several places.
Read more: Argonautica, by Apollonius; Argonautica, by Valerius Flaccus (Greeks and Romans were not very inventive when it came to titles).
Don’t see: Jason and the Argonauts is a brilliant film with a fantastic sequence in which Jason fights an army of stop-motion skeletons… which is an invention of the film-makers. In Greek myth, he fought men who sprang from stones in the ground.
Hercules (Mark Addy)
Who was he? Greece’s greatest hero (Heracles in Greek, Hercules in Latin). His name means ‘glory-through-Hera’; the goddess Hera hated him as a representation of her husband’s umpteenth infidelity, and persecuted him so much that he became famous for overcoming everything she threw at him.
Hercules’ first wife was Megara, but in a fit of temporary madness induced by Hera, he murdered her and their children.
As penance, he had to perform ten Labours for King Eurystheus of Mycenae. These were: kill the Nemean Lion; kill the Lernaean Hydra; bring the Erymanthian Boar alive to Eurystheus; capture the Hind of Ceryneia; kill the Stymphalian Birds; clean out the Stables of Augeas (more difficult than it sounds, as they were inhabited by divine horses who produced a divine amount of dung); bring the Cretan Bull back to Eurystheus alive; bring the man-eating Mares of Diomedes to Eurystheus; bring Eurystheus the Girdle of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, and bring Eurystheus the Cattle of Geryon. When Hercules had done all these, Eurystheus informed him that the Augean Stables didn’t count, because he was paid and because the rivers, through the channels Hercules had dug, did the work anyway; and nor did the Hydra, because he’d had help. So he was sent off to perform two more Labours; steal some apples from the Garden of the Hesperides and bring Eurystheus Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. Hercules had help with stealing the apples as well, but presumably by this point Eurystheus was so fed up of the whole business, he let it go.
Hercules eventually got remarried, to Deianeira. A centaur called Nessus offered to carry her over a big river, but tried to rape her, so Hercules killed him.* As he died, Nessus told Deianeira to take some of his blood and smear it on Hercules’ clothes if she wanted to keep him faithful. Feeling that nothing was more trustworthy than the word of a centaur who just tried to rape you, as soon as she thought Hercules was eyeing up another woman, Deianeira did so – and Hercules promptly burned to death, as the blood was poison. His divine half went off to spend eternity with the gods though, so he’s okay.
*There is a depressingly enormous amount of rape in Greek mythology. We presume Atlantis will leave those parts out, though given that the Disney movie included a version of this story, we can’t be sure.
Read more: The Madness of Heracles, by Euripides.
Don’t see: Disney’s Hercules is a classic 1990s Disney animation, with some great tunes and a feisty heroine. The part where Hercules goes mad and murders Meg and all their children, however, is left out.
Medusa (Jemima Rooper)
Who was she? A beautiful girl who was cursed by the goddess Athena for daring to suggest her hair was more beautiful than Athena’s.* Athena was having none of that, so she turned Medusa’s luxurious hair into writhing snakes.
*In some versions, Poseidon rapes Medusa in a temple sacred to Athena and Athena curses Medusa for it, because the ancient Greeks and Romans were an unpleasant bunch of sexist f*****ts and ancient mythology tends to blame the victim. Again, we assume this is not the angle Atlantis will go for.
Medusa’s stare turned anyone who looked her in the face into stone. Eventually, the hero Perseus beheaded her using a polished bronze shield as a mirror, so he didn’t have to look directly at her. The winged horse Pegasus sprang from her bloody neck because, well, why not?
Read more: Metamorphoses, by Ovid, Book 4, Lines 774-801.
Don’t see: Medusa’s story is fairly simple, so in fact both versions of Clash of the Titans and her appearance in Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief all provide pretty straightforward re-enactments of it.
Minos (Alexander Siddig)
Who was he? King of Crete.
To prove to his brothers that the gods wanted him to be king, Minos asked the god Poseidon to send him a bull from the sea, and promised to sacrifice it to the sea-god. However, when the bull turned up, it was so beautiful that he couldn’t do it, and sacrificed a much less valuable animal instead, so Poseidon sent the bull mad as a punishment.
Read more: The Library of Greek Mythology, by Apollodorus, Book 3, Section 1.2-3.
Don’t see: Minos hasn’t featured much in film and television to date, but he does appear as judge of the underworld on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.
Pasiphae (Sarah Parish)
Who was she? Minos’ wife.
After Poseidon’s bull went mad and started roaming the countryside, the gods made his wife Pasiphae fell hopelessly in love with it. She got the architect Daedalus to build her a wooden cow, which she climbed into in order to have sex with the bull. The result was the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull (exactly how a woman is able to a) copulate with a bull or b) give birth to a half-bull is, thankfully, unspecified). Minos had to get Daedalus to build the Labyrinth to keep it contained, and regularly sacrificed Athenian teenagers to it.
Read more: The Library of Greek Mythology, by Apollodorus, Book 3, Section 1.4.
Don’t see: 2006 horror film Minotaur appears to bear little resemblance to Greek mythology. We haven’t seen it, but the cast (Tom Hardy, Tony Todd, Rutger Hauer) looks promising.
Ariadne (Aiysha Hart)
Who was she? Minos and Pasiphae’s daughter.
Eventually, the Athenians got fed up of sending teenagers to be slaughtered by the Minotaur, so their prince and hero Theseus set off to get rid of it once and for all. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus on sight and gave him a ball of thread to unwind as he went around the Labyrinth, and follow to get out again (which apparently had not occurred to anyone before). Since her father was pretty annoyed at this, like Medea, she ran away with Theseus, who promised to marry her. Like Jason, Theseus then left her; they stopped off at the island of Naxos and Theseus snuck away and abandoned her on the beach while she slept. Eventually, Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy) turned up and carried her off to Olympus to be his wife.
Read more: Metamorphoses, by Ovid, Book 8, Lines 152-182.
Don’t see: Luckily for Inception’s Ariadne, although she leads the hero through the maze, she isn’t abandoned while asleep.
The Oracle (Juliet Stevenson)
Who was she? Oracles were real people (though not all Oracles involved human beings; some relied on the wind rushing through the trees, or the things visitors saw when shoved into a dark cave in the ground, possibly on some drugs).
There were lots of Oracles in the ancient world, but the most important and most famous Oracle in ancient Greece was the Delphic Oracle. People would come and ask the Oracle questions, and she (she was always a woman) would gabber something incomprehensible in reply. The priests at the shrine would then ‘interpret’ this, giving the person their answer, usually in a suitably obscure and easily twisted form (e.g. ‘If you go to war, you will destroy a great empire’ – with no mention of which empire, specifically, would be destroyed).
Read more: The Histories, by Herodotus, includes many of the Delphic Oracle’s most famous prophecies.
Don’t see: 300. The Delphic Oracle almost certainly wore clothes that concealed her nipples from view. She served for life, so for a decent proportion of the time, she’d be a woman reasonably advanced in years.
Pythagoras (Robert Emms)
Who was he? Pythagoras was a real person; a philosopher who lived in the sixth century BC.
Pythagoras is best known for working out that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. He also made important discoveries in the area of music, concerning what makes the best harmonies. He suggested that everything comes down to numbers, in the end.
Pythagoras was also the founding figure of a cult religion/philosophical school, Pythagoreanism. He believed in the transmigration of souls, i.e. in reincarnation, and, presumably as a result of this, advocated vegetarianism. The afterlife is a strong theme throughout Pythagoreanism; Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Pythagoras used to have regular chats with the soul of a dead friend.
He also hated beans and forbade his followers to eat them. Some have suggested this is because he thought the souls of the dead lived in beans. Alternatively, it may be because many philosophers thought that bad dreams disturbed the soul – so, to keep your soul healthy, you should avoid food that gives you indigestion, which could lead to bad dreams. That would rule the musical fruit right out.
Read more: Pythagoras didn’t leave any written works, so for anything more substantial than odd mentions, you need Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Pythagoras or Porphyry’s Life of Pythagoras, both from the 3rd century AD. Walter Burkert’s academic study Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism is probably a (slightly) easier read.
Don’t see: Pythagoras probably wasn’t quite as obsessed with triangles as Red Dwarf’s Meltdown makes out.
We can only hope that, if Pythagoras has reincarnated as an Atlantis viewer, he’s not too horrified by what they’ve done with his story…
Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, freelance writer and Trekkie. She’ll be exploring Atlantis’ use of Greek mythology more thoroughly at her blog, Pop Classics. For a searchable online guide to Greek mythology, see www.theoi.com.