Hairs Of Fortune And Immortality From Greek Mythology

As told in the tales of ancient Greece, a single blessed hair could protect a person, or even a kingdom, from the harms of the world. With one such magical hair, a kingdom could be given divinely-assured security, or the possessor of the hair could find himself or herself immune to age, wounds, and disease. Yet, as was often the case with mythical boons, there is always a catch to the gift. Whereas the kingdom and the king might be made unassailable because of their magical locks, the blessed hair, itself, was still vulnerable to sabotage, and this loophole often caused the downfalls of the Greek heroes who possessed the enchanted strain of hair.

King Nisus of Megara, often said to have been a son of the war-god Ares, numbered among the ranks of mythical figures with special god-given hair. Nisus’ land was coveted by powerful King Minos, but as long as Nisus retained on his head a magical strand of purple hair, his kingdom of Megara would be steadfastly protected by the gods. Yet, as the saying goes, love conquers all, and the love-goddess Aphrodite eventually caused Nisus’ fall from grace by infecting his daughter, Scylla, with an infatuation for her father’s rival, King Minos. The tale was summarized by a scholar known as Pseudo-Hyginus (c. 2nd century), who wrote:

“Nisus, son of Mars [Ares], or as others say, of Deion, and king of the Megarians, is said to have had a purple lock of hair on his head. An oracle had told him that he would rule as long as he preserved that lock. When Minos, son of Jove [Zeus], had come to attack him, Scylla, daughter of Nisus, fell in love with him at the instigation of Venus [Aphrodite]. To make him the victor, she cut the fatal lock from her sleeping father, and so Nisus was conquered by Minos” (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae, 198).

A similar series of events happened to a descendant of the famous Greek hero, Perseus. Hippothoe, Perseus’ granddaughter, was brought as a mistress to the Echinades Islands by the sea god Poseidon. There, Hippothoe had a son named Taphios, and he, in turn, had a son named Pterelaos. Poseidon became quite fond of his grandson, Pterelaos, and the sea-god decided to bless the boy a with a magnificent gift—a golden hair that granted immortality. A scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus recorded the tale, writing, “To Taphios a son, Pterelaos, was born, whom Poseidon made immortal by planting a golden hair in his head” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.5).

Pterelaos eventually clashed with his powerful relatives, Electryon (ruler of mighty Mycenae) and Electryon’s nephew, Amphitryon. It was during this feud between the clans that the deities of love struck again, making Pterelaos’ daughter, Comaitho, fall in love with Amphitryon. With the advent of this love, the future events of Peterlaos’ life, unfortunately, unfolded in the same way as that of the myth of Nisus. As told by Pseudo-Apollodorus, “Now as long as Pterelaos was still alive, Amphitryon was unable to capture Taphos; but when Comaitho, the daughter of Pterelaos, who had fallen in love with Amphitryon, plucked the golden hair from her father’s head, he died, and Amphitryon gained control of all the islands” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.4.7). Another hair plucked, another blessed man defeated, another kingdom conquered. Unfortunately for Comaitho, her love was not reciprocated—when she was brought before Amphitryon, he had her executed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from The Judgment Of Jupiter, By Samuel Finley Breese Morse (c. 1791–1872), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Yale University Art Gallery).



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