Thanks to a suggestion from my friend and colleague Chris Collard, I included in my new Dictionary of Classical Mythology an “Index of Recurring Motifs”, so that anyone interested in the subject could easily trace a particular mythical theme through all its manifestations. When I was asked to write this blog, it seemed a good idea to test out the index by choosing a theme and seeing where it led. But which theme to choose? There are 112 entries in the index, ranging from Abductions to Women who kill. In the end I chose Tests set for men to win brides.
“A good wife was a valuable acquisition in mythical times and was often hard-won. You can forget about dowries and fathers paying to get their daughters married. Here it was the prospective bridegroom who often had to pay dearly for the bride of his choice. Usually he paid in goods, as when the beautiful Helen, “Helen of Troy”, was ready to be married: suitors came from all over Greece hoping to win her, all of them offering rich gifts, and Menelaus was the lucky winner. Sometimes, however, a father would choose a bridegroom for his daughter by setting a difficult task for young men to surmount.
Megareus, the king of Megara, for instance, promised the hand of his daughter Evaechme to whoever could kill a monstrous lion that lived on Mount Cithaeron and was ravaging the country all around. Alcathous killed the lion and won the girl, and with her the kingship of the land.
A rather harder task involving wild animals was set by Pelias, the king of Iolcus. His daughter Alcestis had so many suitors that he said he would give her to whoever could yoke a lion and a wild boar to a chariot, a surely impossible task. Admetus was the winner here, though not without help: the god Apollo tamed the beasts and harnessed them for him, then Admetus drove the chariot to Pelias. Alcestis became his – and was a prize worth winning, since years later Admetus was let off by the Fates from his apportioned day of death, so long as he could find someone willing to die in his place. Alcestis died for him, though luckily at the crucial moment the great hero Heracles came by and wrestled with Death, winning Alcestis back to life.
A popular type of contest was the footrace. Icarius made the many suitors of his daughter Penelope run a footrace to decide between them. Odysseus won, and with it one of the most famously devoted wives in the whole of myth.
Danaus, the king of Argus, had forty-nine daughters to marry off, so he too said that they would go as prizes for whoever would run for them in footraces, the winner to take his pick, and so on, until all the girls were chosen. But these were rather exceptional girls, for they had all been married before and had killed their husbands on the wedding-night, hacking off their heads, so other young men were not exactly queuing up to win them. However, since Danaus was giving the girls away without asking for the customary bride-gifts in exchange, he eventually managed to marry them all off.
Another type of contest was the archery competition. Eurytus, the king of Oechalia, promised to marry his beautiful daughter Iole to whoever could beat him and his sons in an archery contest. Heracles took up the challenge and won the contest, but then Eurytus refused to honour his word: he was afraid that Heracles might go mad and kill any children he had by Iole, just as he had once killed his children by Megara. This was an understandable reservation, but Heracles left Oechalia in anger, and some years later he returned with an army, determined on revenge. He sacked the city and killed Eurytus and his sons, then carried off Iole as his concubine.
Perhaps the most deadly contest of all was the chariot-race. Oenomaus, the king of Pisa in Elis, had a beautiful daughter named Hippodameia. Many suitors had wooed her, but none had lived, let alone won the girl of their choice. It was Oenomaus’ practice to challenge each of them to a chariot race, starting from Pisa and finishing at the altar of Poseidon in faraway Corinth. The prize for their winning would be the hand of Hippodameia, the price of losing would be death. The suitor would set out in his chariot, together with his chosen bride, Oenomaus giving them a start while he sacrificed a ram to Zeus. Then he too would set out, wearing full armour and driving a chariot and immortal horses given him by his father, the war-god Ares. Small wonder that he always caught up with the pair before they arrived at Corinth, whereupon he would spear the unhappy suitor between the shoulder-blades and return home with his daughter.
When Pelops came from faraway Lydia to try his skill, Oenomaus had already triumphantly nailed the heads of many defeated suitors over the door of his palace: perhaps twelve, or thirteen, or sixteen, or eighteen – certainly quite enough to give Pelops pause. But with no hesitation Pelops tried his luck. Actually it was more than luck, because he bribed Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus to betray his master. Myrtilus replaced the bronze linchpins in the wheels of Oenomaus’ chariot with pins made of wax, which would gradually disintegrate during the race.
The race began, and when Oenomaus was in hot pursuit of Pelops and Hippodameia, his chariot foundered and he was dragged to his death in the reins. So Pelops won his bride. An Attic red-figure neck-amphora of about 410 BC, shown here, depicts the race, with Hippodameia standing calmly in Pelops’ speeding chariot, while he anxiously looks back at the pursuing Oenomaus, just before the chariot starts to founder.
These, then, are some of the tests that were set for young men to win their brides, all recounted very briefly. You can find fuller details of these and many other intriguing stories in the Dictionary.”
By Jenny March
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