“Lord Byron and Greek Mythology”
Greek gods symbolize the extremes of the
human desires; they are representations "of men as better than in real
life, or as worse, or as they are" (Butcher, 2009, online). Through these gods,
Greek mythology interprets the origin of the world giving them the benefits of
creating the universe and Man, all the reason why Byron was infatuated with Greek
mythology even before his first visit to
One of the myths that played a role in shaping Lord Byron’s life is that of Hades and Proserpina. According to this myth, Hades, King of the underworld, makes a deal with his brother Zeus to take Proserpina, his daughter as a wife. Without the consent of the bride, or her mother Demeter, Goddess of agriculture. Hades kidnaps Proserpina on one fine day while she is innocently picking flowers with some of her nymphs. This drives Demeter to search for her daughter all around the world, neglecting herself while doing that. This leads to a terrible famine that leaves the mortals starving everywhere. At the scene of the horrible assaults on the earth, Zeus sends Herms, the messenger God, to bring Proserpina back, which Hades agrees on after he tricks Proserpina and secretly makes her "eat a pomegranate seed". Soon after mother and daughter reunite, Proserpina tells her mother about Hades’ trick which leads to Proserpina’s ordeals. As a result, and after the deal that Demeter makes with Hades, Proserpina spends half of every year in the underworld with her husband, during which the earth dies, while the other half she has to spend it with her mother during which the earth flowers. In this version of the myth, Proserpina is described as "the maiden whose name may not be spoken" (Hamilton, 1942, pp. 50-54).
Hades and Proserpina’s characters surface and show resemblance with the characters of Lord Byron and his wife. Among the resemblances is the fact that both marriages seem more of a pact than a marriage; that of the gods was agreed on between the groom and the father of the bride because Hades was attracted to Proserpina’s beauty. While Byron’s marriage was meant to relieve Byron from his debts and keep all suspicion away from him. Another similar aspect is that both male figures are powerful demanding characters that sweep their wives away and in a way or another appeal to them. Nevertheless, the females’ characters are a bit ambiguous, for in general they both show resistance and coldness toward their husbands; however they also show attachment to them. According to Edith Hamilton, Proserpina, "with all her beauty there was something strange and awesome about her" ( Hamilton, 1942, pp. 54). Proserpina and Lady Byron control their men in their own ways, for Proserpina captivates the king of the underworld by her beauty, while Annabelle satisfies Byron in bed. By his marriage to Annabelle, Byron snatched her innocence just like Hades stole Proserpina while innocently picking flowers. As Hades is a god that is hard to please, Lord Byron spent his life searching for what may please him. On his wedding night, “Byron awoke, saw a candle burning on the other side of the scarlet bed-curtains, and exclaimed, ‘Good God! I am fairly in Hades, with Proserpina by my side!’” This comparison made by Byron on the first night of his marriage to Lady Byron could summarize his whole marital life, which was filled with upheavals and problems. Byron implies the distance between him and his wife although she is in the same bed with him. He alienated himself from her for there was no real love or passion between them. This difference is what links this couple to Hades and Proserpina, for Hades is the evil king of the underworld that sees the earth as the enemy of his kingdom, while Proserpina is the innocent daughter of the mother earth that looks upon Hades’ world as hell. In addition, just like Hades binds Proserpina to him for the rest of her life by tricking her, Lord Byron also bounded Lady Byron for the rest of her life. For even though she left him shortly after the birth of their child, she was bounded to Byron not only via her and his accusations but also through the accusations of Byron’s fans who blamed her for the destruction of their marriage, and ultimately of Byron’s self-exile. In his poem Lines on hearing that Lady Byron is ill, Byron describes Lady Byron as the “moral Clymnestra of thy lord” wife of king Agamemnon. In Greek mythology, Clymnestra tried to stop her husband from going to war but couldn’t, so she cheated on him with the acting-ruler and had him killed when he came back (Grant, 1962, pp. 144-148). In this same poem, he also asserts that he finally got his revenge by saying "I am too well avenged, but 't was my right;/wate'er my sins might be, thou wert not sent/To be the Nemesis that should requite". (ll. 13-15)
that was at the base of Byron’s fame is that of Hero and Leander’s,
which is a mythology exposing forbidden love. Hero, from Sestos, is the
priestess of the goddess Aphrodite, while Leander, is a youth from
Byron was greatly influenced by this Greek myth, as
during his first visit to
A better swimmer [than Don Juan] you could scarce see
He could, perhaps have passed the
As once (a feat which on ourselves we prided)
Leander, Mr. Ekenhead, and I did.
(Don Juan, II, 105, ll. 837-840)
is evident, Byron was not interested in swimming the
Another God that Lord Byron respected and took as a model in life is Prometheus, who is known as the creator of Humans in Greek mythology. His love for mankind pushes him to trick Zeus when he discovers his desire to steal from Man. Furious at Prometheus, Zeus takes fire from Man as a punishment for his betrayal; however Prometheus lights a torch from the sun and brings it back to Man, which makes Zeus even angrier. That is why he decides to punish them both horribly. As a punishment for mortals, Zeus makes the gods create a very beautiful but deceptive mortal, Pandora, and gives her a jar as a gift, which she is forbidden to open, and sends her to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus who is staying among Man. Pandora’s beauty deceives Epimetheus, and he lets her stay with him even though Prometheus has long time warned him about Zeus’ gifts. Pandora opens the jar which inflicts on Man all kinds of evils. As for Prometheus, Zeus makes his servants chain him to a rock, where he would be tortured by a giant eagle that would devour his constantly growing liver. Finally, Prometheus refuses Zeus’ help and deals, and is saved years later by Heracles and Chiron. (Hunt, 2011, Online).
many writers and poets, Prometheus became a symbol of "the unconquerable
human spirit" (Graham, 2001, Online). In the above version of the myth,
Prometheus is portrayed as the creator and benefactor of mankind; and as a
punishment for his siding with them and betraying his own race he is punished
by Zeus. In his poems, Byron refers several times to the myth of Prometheus,
usually by mentioning, the chains, the rock or the theft of fire; however, his major
goal was to shape and express his political opinions. For in real life, he was
like Prometheus to his British community; even though he was a member of the
House of Lords, in 1812 he delivered a speech against the inhumane bill that
was issued at the time for the Luddites. He defended the common people that
were fighting for their rights of work and living against the leaders. The
Greek War for
in his poem, Byron treats the original version of the myth in a more complex
way to express his ideals. He questions Prometheus' benefit from helping Man,
“What was thy pity’s recompense?” (Byron, l.5); his answer is
human silent suffering. In earlier versions of this myth (Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound), Prometheus is
described by many characters as the god with the "free tongue". None
of his Romantic contemporaries had a freer tongue than Byron.
written some two thousand years after Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, is a response from his
age where power is not just rivalrous, but reciprocal" (Dennis, 2001,pp.
146). Through his poem, Byron wanted to deliver a message to his readers, a
message of patience, for they should consider Prometheus as their model:
“A Mighty lesson we inherit:/Thou art a symbol and a sign/To Mortals of
their fate and force." According to DeMoss, "Lord Byron’s Prometheus presents a different
perspective than the ancient myths, with a purpose for rebellion” (Demoss,
2005, Online). Byron took this myth as a model when he went to
conclusion, Byron's excessive interest in Greek myths began to influence him
after his first visit to
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Dennis, Ian. “Making Death a Victory”: Victimhood and Power in Byron’s “Prometheus” and the “Prisoner of Chillon”. Keats-Shelley Journal. L (2001): 144-150.
Butcher, S.H. (2009). Poetics. (Aristotle, Trans.). Original work written in 350 B.C.E. Retrieved from: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html
The International Byron Society. Timeline. Retrieved from:
Dupin, Charles M. “On the Death of Lord Byron,” Kaleidoscope, n.s., IV (June 15, 1824), 451-452.
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Byron, Gordon. Lines on hearing that Lady Byron is ill
Byron, Gordon. (1819). Don Juan, Canto II.
Byron, Gordon. Prometheus
Hunt, J.M. (2011). The Creation of Man by Prometheus. The Hellenic Society Prometheas, Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.prometheas.org/mythology.html