Like everything else in Greek Mythology, the word "maiandros" has a highly symbolic, tragic and beautiful story behind it.
According to the earliest mention, by Hesiod, Maiandros is the patron deity of a river in Asia Minor, son of Oceanus and Tethys; it has its headwaters in the highlands of southern Phrygia and, flowing west through Karia, empties into the Aegean Sea opposite the city of Miletos (Miletus). The river follows a very characteristic course, which has persisted as "meandering" in English.(1)
The historian Herodotus mentions it, also, several times in his Histories, and, later, the geographer Pausanias informs us that king Ankaios (Ancaeus) of Samos took to wife Samia, the daughter of the river Maiandros.(2) Another story yet survives: that Maiandros was the name of a warrior king who promised Rhea (the primordial mother of the Greek gods, daughter of Uranus and Gaia, wife of her brother Cronus) that if he triumphed over his adversaries, he would sacrifice the first to greet him on his return home. His wife, daughter, and son were waiting to greet him; as promised, he sacrificed them and then threw himself into the river, which was known as "rising" or "ascending"(because it seemed to return to its source); it is since then, that the river has been called Maiandros, after him!(3) The same author informs us of another variant, that the king Maiandros plundered Rheas' temple, and, to punish him, the goddess caused him to lose his mind; he killed his family, and then threw himself into the river which received his name. Love stories, unlawful murders, suicides... and the gods watching from above!
What are we supposed to make from these stories? Surely, the river which exists to the present day was well known in antiquity, and its characteristic features were widely noticed. Most major rivers (among other natural occuring phenomena) had deities connected to them, and the stories about them and their adventures went back several thousand years; of course they would retain the main theme, but the details would change, usually because of the attempt to connect them to other stories and events of that era. With this in mind, let us mention the last and most popular story, one that reveals in the best possible way the connection Ancient Greeks perceived between human beings, nature, and the supernatural, the deities.
According to this story, Peleas, the king of "Myrmidons" in Thessaly, fell in love with goddess Thetis, but seeing little chance of realising his feelings, he sought advice from Cheiron, the centaur who lived on the mountains of Pelion. The wise centaur advised him that the only way to subdue her was to hold her in a special armlock (since known as a "Cheironean armlock") and not let her go, even if she turned into a deadly snake or a lioness or even fire or water. On the night she danced, Peleas leapt over, grabbed her, and managed to hold her through all her metamorphoses. The event is beautifully depicted in a kylix of 500 BC (now in Berlin!) where the armlock which at one point depicts the shape of maiandros, can be clearly seen. Peleas married Thetis and had seven sons, six of whom died in infancy. The one who survived was the demigod Achilles, who was also taughts by Cheiron, and became a hero in the Troian war!4
As we can attest from the multitude of plates, vases, kylixes and other artefacts that chose to depict this story, this was a very popula and widespread version at around 500 BC. We cannot see the "Cheironian-armlock" that Peleas applies in all depictions (interlacing his left hand with his right, his fingers forming the shape of maiandros), but in all we see that he is holding the goddess by the waist and she fights back by turning into a lion, or even fire, and often how serpents coming from her body try to devour Peleas. What we don't see is the deep symbolism of the image of a mortal man defeating a goddess by believing in himself and asserting his willpower. Defeating even a god is possible if fate allows it and if you believe in yourself and assert your willpower. It is not hubris because it is not going against fate: Thetis, we are told, was destined to marry a mortal so that her offspring would not, as prophecy said, defeat Zeus. So a very delicate balance between what mortals can achieve and what the gods (their destiny) have in store for them. The ever-to-itself returning form of maiandros, like the ever-to-itself returning mind ("know thyself"), is the ultimate weapon in the struggle for perfection and fulfilment in this life. The maiandros armlock, symbolizing the ultimate struggle of man against the god, is also depicted on many vases and tablets of the same period, with Heracles defeating the sea god Triton.
Maiandros should not be confused with Gammadion, which is a precursor of the swastika, although it has similar symbolic meaning. Both symbols ultimately derive from the ancient Greek theory of physics, about the helical motion of the particles that make up the word, and the "returning to itself" nature of things that guarantees the eternal motion of Heracleitus. Maiandros, however, is always meant to represent the "interlocking" of two elements, which can be seen in our forms if we look closely. The definition of Gammadion is "An arrangement of shapes of capital gamma (Γ), especially of four, as a swastika" (Oxford dictionary) or "a decorative figure composed of a number of Greek capital gammas, esp. radiating from a centre, as in a swastika" (Collins dictionary).
There is much more to be said and discovered in this sacred symbol. Since its creation, many have been able to enjoy it as a decorative element, but few are able to understand and internalise its deeper meaning! Enjoy the pictures, in the relevant page.
(1) Hesiod, Theogony. (Excellent collection of old etchings and drawings of the river at "Travelogues").
(2) Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio.
(3) Athanasios Stagirites, Ogygia or Archeology.
(4) Ovid names Proteus, the sea-god, son of Poseidon, as the one who advised Peleas. But since Peleas clearly uses the "Cheironian-armlock", which depicts the shape of maiandros as we know it (see relevant pictures below), it seems that Ovid is wrong.