Margaret Panofsky, author of  The Last Shade Tree  (photo: Kent Williamson)

Why am I embracing a Sphinx??

When I was a child, I soaked up the ancient Greek myths and epic adventures that my mother read aloud as bedtime stories. Until a rotation system was established, the five of us kids would vie vociferously for the coveted spots on either side of her. Then we would enter a world of glorious and inglorious extremes—mayhem, murder, sexual exploits, and outrageous indignities—even though the tales within the beautifully illustrated books, Metamorphosis, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, had been cleaned up sufficiently for our impressionable young minds. I remember crying when the victorious and spoiled Achilles dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot around the walls of fallen Troy. 

So why am I embracing a sphinx, the heartless lion-woman who asked Oedipus the famous riddle? Because I love mythology. Years after absorbing the lurid bedtime tales from Greece, I discovered that mythology permeates all cultures. From this background I have written new myths that tie together the more fantastic elements in The Last Shade Tree

Little bits and pieces of Greek myths, Cherokee tales, an Aché myth, and a reference to a Norse god have crept into my novel to nestle alongside the new myths. These brief synopses relate their full stories: 

Prometheus, from “Aleta Gone,” Chapter 5

Prometheus was a Titan from the generation of Greek gods that preceded Zeus. When the Titans were banished, Prometheus managed to stay in favor—until he committed the ultimate sin. He stole fire from the gods to elevate humans from their wretched lot. To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock, and every day an eagle devoured his liver. But it regrew in the night so that the excruciating process could begin again the next day. Eventually the strongman Hercules unchained him. 

Hercules and the Augean Stables, from “Aleta Gone”

The Greek hero Hercules was required to perform twelve demeaning and dangerous labors. The fifth labor was to clean the gigantic and filthy stables of King Augeas—all in one day. With rough-and-ready efficiency, Hercules diverted the courses of two nearby rivers to flow through the stables and whoosh away the accumulated muck. 

Aché Twins Kuaray and Yacy, from “Aleta Gone” 

Mythology abounds with powerful twins, some of them personifications of the sun and moon. For example, Zeus’s twin children Apollo and Diana are associated with those heavenly bodies. Many South American indigenous peoples worshipped sets of twins. The Brazilian Aché identified the twins Kuaray and Yacy directly with the sun and moon. 

Hera and the Milky Way, from “Luna’s Fork n Spoon,” Chapter 7

Hera, Zeus’s unhappy wife, was a victim of his constant philandering. Sadly, her jealous rages turned her into a laughingstock even though she was the all-powerful queen of the heavens. Zeus conspired to bestow immortality on his half-human son, the illegitimate Hercules, by duping Hera into suckling the infant. Hercules was placed at Hera’s breast while she slept, but she awoke and pushed him away. Her milk squirted across the sky to form the many stars of the Milky Way.  

Orpheus, from “Luna’s Fork ’n Spoon”

Orpheus, son of Apollo, was married to the nymph Eurydice for only a brief time before she died. Stricken, he followed her to the underworld where he attempted to win her back by hypnotizing Hades, king of that dark realm, with his meltingly lovely lyre playing. Hades agreed to release Eurydice only if Orpheus did not look at her as they ascended to the world above. He failed the test, and lost her forever. 

The Sphinx, from “The Kidnapping of Svnoyi,”  Chapter 8 

The sphinx was a composite mythical creature that varied in appearance and personality depending upon its place of origin. What both the Egyptian and Greek sphinxes had in common were feline characteristics—although their sex and natures were opposites. The Greek female sphinx who asked Oedipus the famous riddle was as heartless as her Egyptian male counterpart was benign. Ethan’s sphinx that “fell into a pink cupcake” was the Greek variety. 

Baldr, from “The Kidnapping of Svnoyi” 

The Norse god Baldr was known for his purity, his wealth, his wisdom, and his glowing good looks. His doting and fearful mother Frigg entreated every object in the world—except the insignificant mistletoe plant—to vow never to hurt her son. Unfortunately, an enemy of Baldr discovered his vulnerability. The most perfect of the Norse gods was slain by a spear fashioned from a mistletoe branch. 

Leda and the Swan, from “Drancy,” Chapter 10

Nessie’s snide comment about “Zeus zipped up in a swan suit” refers to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. As a swan, Zeus seduced Leda in an unlikely coupling that produced four children hatched from eggs with contested parentage: Helen of Troy, Castor, Pollux, and Clytemnestra.  

The Haunted Whirlpool, from “Departure,” Chapter 21

This tale of the Eastern Cherokee was collected by the ethnographer James Mooney, c. 1900. At the mouth of Suck Creek on the Tennessee River, fearsome whirlpools threatened boatmen’s lives. Two men were caught in a violent whirlpool that yanked them underwater. One was eaten by a fish while the other was sucked to the very bottom of the vortex. Below him, as if looking through the roof beams, he saw a house full of people reaching their hands out to seize him.  Luckily the current pushed him back to the surface. (Read full text of this myth here.)

Niobe, from “Departure” 

The Greek noblewoman Niobe bragged about her fourteen children, and was punished for her proud hubris by Apollo and Diana, who shot them dead with bows and arrows. Niobe fasted and wept for nine days before returning home to her native Sipylus. There she was turned into a rock that still weeps as rainwater seeps through the porous limestone. 

Charybdis and Scylla, from “Babloons,” Chapter 24

The whirlpool Charybdis and the rock shoal Scylla were natural hazards on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland. Originally mythical sea monsters, they forced Ulysses to choose which one of them to confront on his return from Troy. He chose Scylla, losing only a few sailors. Even today, “between Charybdis and Scylla” means having to choose between two evils. 

Cherokee rose

Cherokee rose

Legend of the Cherokee Rose, from “Cherokee Rose,” Chapter 26

So many people died on the Trail of Tears that all the mothers gave up hope and stopped caring for their children. The Elders called on Galvladiehi, Heaven Dweller. He helped them by creating a flower: anywhere along the Trail where a woman had shed a tear, a baby rosebush sprouted, grew tall, and the flowers burst into bloom in a single day. All this beauty and the strength of the fragile rose gave the mothers new courage. 


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