| Gods and Heroes|
|by Robert Edward Francillon|
|One of the best introductions to Greek mythology for children. Includes the stories of all the prominent gods and heroes, woven together into a continuous narrative, ending with a full treatment of the twelve labors of Hercules. Ages 8-12 |
ADES," the name of the kingdom of Pluto and
Proserpine, means "invisible," because it is
unseen by living eyes. It is surrounded by the river
Styx by which the gods swore their sacred oath, and
which flows round and round it in nine circles before
springing up into the living world. Even when the
Styx rises out of the ground in the land of Arcadia,
it still remains a cold black river, whose waters are
poisonous to drink; but if anybody was bold enough
to bathe in them, and lucky enough to come out alive,
no weapon afterwards would have power to wound him.
Some people say that Thetis (the goddess who saved
Jupiter from the great plot) dipped her child Achilles
into the Styx as soon as he was born, head foremost,
holding him by the left heel between her finger and
thumb. But she forgot that her thumb and finger
prevented the water from touching the skin just where
she held him. And so, when he grew up, though no
weapon could hurt him anywhere else, yet, when he
was hit by an arrow in the left heel, he died of the
 When anybody died, his body was buried or burned
by his friends, and his soul left him and went down to
Hades, till it reached the banks of the Styx. Here it
waited for Charon's ferry-boat, about which you read in
the story of Psyche. If its friends had buried its body
properly, they had given it a small silver coin to pay
the ferryman, who took the money and at once rowed
it across the river. But if the soul had no money to
pay for its passage, it had to wait for a hundred years,
shivering and cold. Arrived on the other side, the soul
was taken before the three judges of
Æăcus, and Rhădamanthus. All three had been kings
on earth, so famous for wisdom and justice that, when
they died, Pluto made them the judges of the dead.
These decided what was to be done with the soul. If
it had been virtuous during its life upon earth, it was
allowed to enter Elysium, or the region of happiness;
if it had been wicked, it was condemned to the horrible
prison of Tartărus, there to be punished by torture.
Elysium, which is also called "the Elysian fields,"
or "the Islands of the Blest," was a very delightful
place, like the most beautiful country in the finest
weather, never too hot or too cold, and full of sweet
scents and sounds. There the souls of the happy
enjoyed forever, without ever getting tired, whatever
had given them the most pleasure upon earth—hunting,
or war, or learning, or music, or whatever it might
 be: only all their pleasures became innocent and noble,
and even if they fought, it was all in friendship and
without harm. Nothing was quite real there: it was
more like a beautiful and happy dream, lasting forever.
Some of the very best and greatest human souls were
taken up into Olympus and made "Demi-gods," that is
to say "Half-gods"; but of course this was a very rare
honor. The dream of Elysium was thought to be
reward enough for the souls which, in their lives, had
done more good than evil.
Tartarus, the place of torment, was a very different
place, as I need not say. It was farther below the
earth than the earth is below the sky, and was surrounded
by three brazen walls, and by Phlegethon, the
river of Fire. The only entrance was through a high
tower, with gates which not even the gods could open,
and guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus, which
never slept; and the air was three times darker than
the darkest midnight, lighted only by the terrible flames
of Phlegethon. The jailers were Nĕmĕsis and the
Furies. Nemesis is the great stern power who never
allows the guilty to escape from their just punishment,
nor the good to lose their just reward. If people are
happier or more fortunate than they deserve to be, she
always, either in this life or in Hades, gives them
enough misery at last, until they are just as happy or
unhappy as they deserve to be, and neither less nor
 more; and if they seem less happy or less fortunate
then they deserve, she makes it up to them in the end.
She is often so strangely slow in coming, that she has
been called lame. But she always comes at last: if
she is slow, she is sure.
There was once a king of the island of Samos, named
Pŏlycrătes, who was famous for his marvelous good
fortune. Nothing ever went wrong with him; he did
not seem able to fail in anything, even if he tried; he
knew neither misfortune nor sorrow. Though only the
prince of a little island, he became, by one stroke of
good luck after another, the most powerful monarch of
his time, so that the kings of the greatest nations came
to his court to do him homage and admire his glory.
Among these was Amāsis, King of Egypt, who was
frightened at the sight of such prosperity, and thought,
"This is surely more than any mortal deserves—Nemesis
must surely be near at hand!" So he advised
Polycrates to bring some misfortune upon himself, to
keep Nemesis away. At first Polycrates laughed at
such counsel; but, to remove the friendly fears of
Amasis, he threw into the sea a ring with a magnificent
seal, which he prized the most of all his jewels, and the
loss of which made him really unhappy—so you may
guess how little unhappiness he had ever known before.
A few days afterwards, however, while at dinner with
Amasis, he happened to cut open a large fish; and
 behold, inside the fish he found the ring, which thus
came back to him from the bottom of the sea. Instantly
Amasis rose from the table and hurried back to Egypt,
exclaiming, "I dare not have anything more to do with
so fortunate a man—Nemesis must be at the door!"
And he was right; and when she came, she came
indeed! From the hour when the ring was found in
the fish, all the prosperity of Polycrates departed from
him; he sank lower and lower; until at last he was
treacherously captured by the governor of one of his
own cities, and put to a shameful death by torture.
You will often hear people speak of "the Ring of
Polycrates." When they do, they mean (or ought to
mean) that a life of mixed joy and sorrow, such as most
of us have, is what most of us deserve; and that this is
the happiest as well as the best for us in the long-run.
It is not good for us to know nothing of sorrow or pain.
And if we ever feel that we suffer unjustly—well,
Nemesis, the slow but the sure, will make it up to us
in the end.
However, I must go back to Tartarus, in spite of its
unpleasantness. I was speaking of the Furies, who
served under Nemesis as its jailers. These were three
creatures like women, with hissing and writhing snakes
instead of hair, holding a torch in one hand, and a whip
made of live scorpions in the other. These whips were
the whips of Conscience, with which they scourged and
 stung the souls both of the dead and the living. They
were the chief servants of Nemesis, because the stings
of Conscience are the most terrible of all her punishments.
The Furies were the most dreadful creatures
in or out of Hades. People had such awe and horror
of them that they dared not even name them. The
real names of the Furies was the "Erinnyes," which
means the desperate madness of those whom the gods
or fates have cursed. But people who wanted to speak
of them always called them the "Eumenĭdes"—that
is to say, "the Gracious Ladies"—just as timid people
in England used to say "the Good Folk" instead of
"the Fairies," for fear of making them angry by naming
their real name.
The tortures of Tartarus were of all sorts and kinds.
Among the evil souls which suffered there, the most
famous were the three wicked kings, Ixīon,
and Tantălus. Ixion was tied by his arms and legs to
the spokes of a wheel, which whirled round and round
at full speed without ever giving him one moment's
rest. Sisyphus had to carry up to the top of a high and
steep hill a huge stone, which, as soon as he got it up,
instantly rolled to the bottom again, so that his labor
had no end. The torment of Tantalus was perhaps
the worst of all. Maddened with hunger and thirst,
he was chained to a rock in such a manner that he
could not seize one of the delicious fruits that hung
 close to his eyes, or one of the cups of cool and fragrant
drink which unseen hands put to his lips, and then,
just as he was about to taste, snatched away again.
Being "tantalized" means being treated like Tantalus.
Then there were the Danaides, or the forty-nine daughters
of King Dănănus, who had all murdered their
husbands, and were condemned to fill sieves with water,
which of course ran out through the holes as soon as
they poured it in. There had been fifty Danaides;
but the fiftieth had taken no part in her sisters' crime.
There was also the wicked giant Tityus, who was so
huge that his body covered nine acres of ground, and
whose punishment was, to be perpetually devoured by
Souls not good enough for Elysium, but not bad
enough for Tartarus, were treated in another way.
Some were sent to wander about the world as Lemures,
or homeless ghosts; others were given to drink of the
waters of the Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness, which
threw them into a dreamless sleep forever.
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