The sea as a two-way passage between life and death in Greek mythology

Beaulieu, Marie-Claire Anne, 1979-
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The sea has two major roles in Greek mythology. It is associated with the voyage into Hades, and as the primordial water, Oceanus, it represents vitality and even eternal life. Until now, scholars have viewed these two aspects as fundamentally antinomic. I propose to treat them as complementary to show that the sea is an intermediary locus between the earth and the Underworld that allows initiatory passages to adulthood, heroization, and divinization by symbolic death and return to life. For women, immersion, just like a nuptial bath, is a one-way, irrevocable transformation from parthenos to gynê that separates them forever from their families. In myths such as those of Danae and Auge, girls find a husband and a new community in foreign lands as well as a new identity as queens after having been exposed on the sea by their families. The chest in which they are shut with their illegitimate children conveys the double meaning of the myth: it saves the heroines' lives, but it was also used as a bier in Antiquity. Conversely, girls such as Britomartis leap into the sea to get away from their lovers. Their immersion is an escape from the power of Eros, an anti-initiation into adulthood. This denial of Eros is also present in Sappho's leap at Leucas. The poet escapes Eros and enters Hades by leaping down the cliff and she returns to the earth free from passion. For adolescent men, immersion into the sea is a two-way passage accomplished under no compulsion. Taras' and Theseus' passage in the sea results in their recognition as the sons of gods. They return to their communities as fully integrated leaders.