verba volant, scripta manent
verba volant, scripta manent
Why have we called our site "maiandros"?
What is maiandros?
Is it the name for a decorative shape? Or the ancient name for a river? Is it the name of a person, a king maybe? An ancient god? It is all these and more! Like everything else in Greek Mythology, "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. The river follows a very characteristic course, which has become known as "meandering" in English.
The historian Herodotus also mentions the river in his Histories, and, later, the geographer Pausanias informs us that king Ancaeus of Samos took to wife Samia, the daughter of the river Maiandros.
Elsewhere, in a story reported by Athanasios Stagirites in his Ogygia or Archeology, we learn that Maiandros was initially 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 she helped him triumph over his adversaries, he would sacrifice the first person or persons to greet him on his return home. He did triumph... and he retured home. The first to greet him were, according to this story, his wife with his children, a daughter and a son. True to his pledge, he sacrificed them; but his grief was so severe, that he plunged himself into a river which was known as "rising" or "ascending", because it followed a peculiar path and it seemed to be returning to its source. It is since then that the river has been called Maiandros, after this king!
The same author informs us of another variant to this story, that the king Maiandros plundered Rheas' temple, and, to punish his hubris, 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 of 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 occurring phenomena) had deities connected to them, and the stories about them and their adventures went back several thousands of years; over the course of time, they would retain the main theme, but the details would adapt to other stories, events or phenomena which were in need of explanation at the time.
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 the Greek "Myrmidons" in Thessaly, fell in love with goddess Thetis; seeing little chance of realising his feelings, he sought advice from Cheiron, the famous 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 a sea-monster or, even, into fire or water. On one of the following nights, the goddess came into the open; Peleas saw her dancing, and, following Cheiron's advice, leapt over, grabbed her, and held her through all her metamorphoses and, eventually, subdued her! The event is beautifully depicted in a kylix of 500 BC (now in Berlin!) where the armlock can be seen and the shape of maiandros is shown where Peleas' hands lock into each other (photo above). Peleas married Thetis and had seven sons, six of whom died in infancy. The one who survived was the demigod Achilles, who was also taught by Cheiron, and became a hero in the Trojan war. (Ovid, much later though, names Proteus, the sea-god, son of Poseidon, as the one who advised Peleas.)
As we can attest from the multitude of plates, vases, kylixes and other artefacts that depict this story, it was a very popular 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 of them we see that he is holding the goddess by the waist as she tries to fight back by turning herself into a lion, a sea-monster, or, sometimes, fire; sometimes serpents come from her body trying 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 one believes in oneself and, consequently, asserts their 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 the prophecy said, defeat Zeus. We cannnot but admire the delicate balance between what mortals can achieve and what the gods and 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.
Considering the shape of the maiandros, we should be careful not to confuse it with Gammadion, a somewhat similar shape; gammadion is the precursor of the swastika, not maiandros (as it has sometimes been falsely claimed)! Both symbols ultimately derive from and are related to the ancient Greek theory of physics, which held that the particles that make up the word move in a helical motion; what seems like a spiral, the "returning to itself" motion, is what guarantees the eternal motion that governs all things (Heracleitus). Maiandros, however, is also meant to represent the "interlocking" of two opposing elements, left and right, to create the whole. There is much more to be said and discovered in these sacred symbols beyond their undeniable decorative appeal which, since their creation, many have been able to enjoy.
Last, but not least: you may be confused by the spelling of the word "maiandros", which you may have come across as "meandros", so we finish out short story with a brief account of the correct spelling of the word. Do not worry though: as far as navigating to our site is concerned, both "maiandros.com" and "meandros.com" will bring you here. The correct spelling of the word in Greek has always been "μαίανδρος" a spelling which agrees wonderfully with the etymology of the word: "μαία" and "ανήρ" the former meaning "midwife" and the latter "man", the union of which signifies the (symbolic) (re)birth of man into the victorious creature who can triumph over everything, as long as he treads on the right path of self-knowledge. (The Greek language is "conceptual", more than any other, and this makes it relatively easy to trace the meaning of a word, when one knows the etymology.) The transliteration of the word which is used in many good translations of ancient texts is "maeander". Yes, where did the -os ending go, and why should the dipthong "ai" be abused in this way, are legitimate questions which have their answer deep into the phonetics of latin; but let us not stop there and proceed to consider where the other spelling came from. It seems that because "maiandros" and "meandros" sound similar, someone who heard the word, but had not seen it in writing, transcribed it in the Latin alphabet using the simplest "phonetic" form (killing the diphtong), which is "meandros". From Latin it went into English and from there it spread everywhere in that form, to the point that even some Greeks, those that do not know the correct spelling obviously, borrowed this spelling and re-introduced it into Greek, resulting in another Greek word for "μαίανδρος¨ which is incorrect.
Below you can find some mentions of “maiandros” by various writers. The texts have been taken from the very informative site “Theoi” (meaning “Gods” in Greek).
Hesiod, Theogony 337 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic circa 800 or 700 B.C.): "Tethys bore to Okeanos (Oceanus) the swirling Potamoi (Rivers)... Strymon and Maiandros (Maeander), Istros (Ister) of the beautiful waters [in a list of rivers]."
Strabo, Geography 12. 8. 19 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer circa 100 B.C. to 100 A.D.): "And they say that lawsuits are brought against the god Maiandros (Maeander) for altering the boundaries of the countries on his banks, that is, when the projecting elbows of land are swept away by him; and that when he is convicted the fines are paid from the tolls collected at the ferries."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 4. 1 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue circa 200 A.D.): "Ankaios (Ancaeus) [first king of Samos] took to wife Samia, the daughter of the river Maiandros (Maeander)."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 9. 446 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic circa 100 B.C. to 100 A.D.): "[Miletos (Miletus)] built the battlements that keep their founder's name [i.e. the town of Miletos]; where, as she strolled beside Maeander's winding banks, her father's stream, that turns so often back upon its course, he joined in love a Nympha of beauty rare, Cyanee."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Preface (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer circa 200 A.D.): "From Oceanus and Tethys [were born] the Oceanides . . . Of the same descent Rivers : Strymon, Nile, Euphrates, Tanais, Indus, Cephisus, Ismenus, Axenus, Achelous, Simoeis, Inachus, Alpheus, Thermodon, Scamandrus, Tigris, Maeandrus, Orontes."
Propertius, Elegies 2. 34 (trans. Goold) (Roman elegy circa 100 B.C.): "The stream of the Maeandrus (Maeander) wanders deceptively over the Phrygian plain and itself conceals the direction of its flow."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 11. 379 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic circa 500 A.D.): "His own father called him Kalamos (Calamus): his father Maiandros (Maeander), lurking in the secret places with his water in the lap of earth--who rolls deep through the earth and drags his crooked stream towards the light, crawling unseen and travelling slantwise underground, until he leaps up quickly and lifts his neck above the ground."
Is this reclining river-God the first Maiandros?