Mythology and “Perdita”
Perdita (Latin for the “lost one”) is an elusive but central figure in Marged Brice’s story. She is a gothic, ghostly hybrid—said to have been an important figure in Greek mythology and originally included in the works of the poet, Hesiod (c. 650-750 BCE). Somehow her story has been “lost” from the record (or perhaps deliberately erased). As a result, she is virtually unknown to contemporary readers.
Perdita’s role in mythology
In Greek mythology (according to the novel), Perdita is an orphaned child who was once hidden among the Fates—the three sisters who determine how long a mortal being will live. The metaphor connecting the sisters is “the thread of life.”
Clotho (pictured on the right) is the youngest sister: she spins the “thread of life” from her distaff and onto a spindle.
Her sister, Lachesis (sitting on the left) then measures out the amount of thread that a person is “allotted.”
It is the third sister, Atropos (seated in the background and whose name means “inexorable one”) who cuts the thread and ends a person’s life. Atropos is said to determine both the timing and manner of a mortal’s death.
The Fates may seem rather grim company for a small child, but they have a unique place within Greek mythology. In many accounts, the Fates are depicted as independent entities who make sure that the immutable laws of destiny are allowed to unfold without interference.
In Perdita, however, the Fates can get a little distracted in their work and occasionally make “mistakes.” (The painting by John Strudwick seems to capture a sense of this: Atropos looks thoroughly bored.) The results of their distraction are pieces of “thread” that cannot be accounted for—in other words, “loose ends.”
The extra pieces of thread are hidden under Lachesis’s robe and it is the lost child, Perdita, who gathers these up and makes bundles out of them.
Perdita is an abandoned child in William Shakespeare’s play, “The Winter’s Tale.” King Leontes thinks that his wife (Queen Hermione) has had a child by her lover. The King orders the child’s death but Perdita (the lost one) is rescued by shepherds. (Detail of a painting by A. F. Sandys 1829-1904.)
What are particularly important to Perdita are the loose ends of love relationships—for example: romances that never get off the ground, love that isn’t returned, relationships that are broken off, or love that isn’t acknowledged or even “seen.” This last being something that is particularly important to Clare and Garth’s relationship.
Gathered in Perdita’s bundle, then, are the “loose ends” associated with all the different forms of love: friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), unselfish love (agape), and biophilia, the love between humans and the natural world.
Perdita keeps these loose ends (“lost threads” or in Latin fila perdita) because they are never completely dormant. Loose ends are important to us mortals because they always offer the possibility of redemption, reconciliation and greater understanding. So Perdita’s gift to humans is an extraordinary one—the possibility of love—and it is just as remarkable as Prometheus’s gift of fire (see below).
In the “original” text of Hesiod’s epic poem, events involving Hephaestus, Pandora and Prometheus unfold in a very different way than in conventional versions. Both the events themselves and their sequence is different in the “original,” uncensored version that Garth and Clare discover. But before detailing Perdita’s story, a quick who’s who of the relevant figures in Greek mythology might be helpful.
Zeus by William Blake (1794)
Zeus is the godhead or “father of all gods and mortals.” He is the powerful Lord of the Greek mythological world and not only does he like to get his way, but fully expects to get it.
Prometheus is a Greek god who seems to have had a rocky relationship with Zeus. In many stories he frequently tricks Zeus and embarrasses him. He is best known for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind. As a result, Prometheus is often depicted as a special friend of humanity—a sort of patron saint—who gives humankind a special skill that none of the other creatures have: that of harnessing and utilizing fire and all its associated technologies. In 18th century Europe (the time of the Western Enlightenment), Prometheus became associated with scientific advancement, technological innovation and the triumph of “reason” over religion and superstition.
Prometheus’s punishment by Zeus (J. Jordans, 1640)
In Greek mythology, Zeus punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a mountain. Each night an eagle visits Prometheus and eats his liver. During the day, Prometheus’ liver regenerates itself—but it is only eaten again by the eagle at night. This goes on for thousands of years until Hercules rescues Prometheus. The phrase a “Promethean agony,” then, captures this sense of a horrible torture that goes on for days and days.
Hephaestus: the “Blacksmith” and maker of Vulcan’s thunderbolts
Hephaestus is the son of Zeus and Hera (goddess of love) and a master craftsman. He is said to have been born crippled and to have made some pretty fabulous objects: the winged helmet of Hermes, Achilles’ armour, Helios’ chariot and the golden lions and dogs at the entrance to Alkinoos who could tell the difference between friends and intruders (and bite only the latter!). One of Hephaestus’ tasks was to make the chains that bound Prometheus to the mountain where Zeus inflicts his horrible punishment.
A cosmological “love child”
Hephaestus in his forge (detail of painting by Diego Valesquez, 1640)
Even before chaining him to a mountain, Zeus is very angry with Prometheus for his many tricks. Zeus is also jealous of Prometheus’ friendship for mortals and so Zeus orders his son Hephaestus (the blacksmith) to make a “beautiful maiden”—a female human (Pandora) who will become the vehicle of Zeus’ revenge. Pandora’s extraordinary beauty is meant to hide what she is really bringing in her “box” to humans: the spirits of pestilence, disease, jealousy, greed, etc. Hephaestus obeys, begins work and creates Pandora.
Pandora peeping in her box (J. W. Waterhouse, 1896)
In conventional stories, Pandora cannot resist looking inside her box (as depicted in Waterhouse’s painting). In Perdita, however, something else happens in Hesiod’s original version of the tale: Hephaestus unexpectedly falls in love with Pandora. He doesn’t intend to and initially he resists his impulses. Perdita is the result of his eventual union with Pandora. She is therefore born as a result of a passionate love…and without Zeus’s knowledge or approval.
Perdita’s escape with Prometheus
Prometheus steals fire from Zeus (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1916)
Hephaestus and Pandora conceal their “love-child,” but Zeus eventually hears about Perdita and demands that she be handed over to him. The two lovers initially hide her among the Fates and it is here that Perdita is given the task of saving all the “loose ends” of existence. But Perdita is not safe among the Fates: Zeus plans to steal her and so the Fates give her to Prometheus.
Prometheus agrees to hide the child among mortals. Taking her with him while he steals fire from the gods, he gives both Perdita and fire to humans. In the novel, Clare picks up on this dimension of the myth to suggest that “love” in addition to “technology” are equally important “gifts” from the gods. Humans seize upon fire and begin to use it‚ but they forget about Perdita and eventually abandon her.