Elements of Greek Mythology appearing in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex

Seminar Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Calliope Helen Stephanides
2.1. Names
2.2. Minotaur
2.3. Hermaphrodite

3. Family
3.1. Grandparents
3.1. Eleutherios Stephanides
3.2. Parents
3.2.1. Tessie Stephanides
3.2.2. Milton Stephanides

4. Smyrna

5. Relationships of the figures

6. Conclusion

Genealogical tree of the family

Genealogical tree of the figures



1. Introduction

In this paper I want to write about the different elements from Greek mythology that appear in Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex and their connection to the characters and their lives. I want to show that the author had a certain intention when he chose the names and the background of the characters. I will start with the main character of the novel, Calliope, and talk about the different elements that refer to her. Then you can read about some of her family members and how they are connected to Greek mythology in chapter three. The fourth chapter of my paper deals with the journey of Desdemona and Eleutherios. I add a map on page 19 so that it is easier to follow their way. In chapter five I will talk about the genealogical tree of the figures from Greek mythology we can find in the novel and compare it with the relationships of the family members in the novel.

2. Calliope Helen Stephanides

Calliope Helen Stephanides is the main character and also narrator of the novel. She is born on January 8th in 1960 in Detroit and is raised as the second child and first daughter of Tessie and Milton Stephanides. She does not have many friends, but admires one special girl a lot. When she is fourteen Calliope has an accident. At the hospital they discover that she is a hermaphrodite, in her case a boy with a slightly hypospadiac penis. Until then she had entirely grown up as a girl, although having a “male brain”[1]. To avoid any misunderstandings according to this paper I have to mention that I will use the female name Calliope when I refer to text passages where the extraordinary sex of the protagonist’s is still unnoticed. The male form will be used when I talk about those parts of the novel that happen after her decision to live on as the boy she genetically is.

Since Calliope is the main character of the novel, most elements refer to her, either directly or indirectly. We can even find two of them in her name, furthermore there are two appearing in the story itself.

2.1. Names

Calliopes first name is taken from one of the nine muses. Like all of them she was the daughter of Zeus. She was the oldest one, representing epic poetry and science and therefore was often illustrated holding a board or a roll of paper and a stylus. Although the muses were said to be virgins, Calliope was the mother of Orpheus and Linos. This is an important fact, since Calliope Stephanides also was supposed to be a virgin. From the genetic and physiological point of view, she is male and because she was not aware of that fact yet and because of her young age, nobody would have suspected her having had sex with a boy.

At the first glance her other first name was taken from her aunt Zoë Helen. But if we look at Greek mythology we can see that there was a goddess named Helene (also called Helena). Her mother Leda had transformed herself into a goose in order to escape the advances of Zeus. But he changed himself into a swan and so was able to impregnate her. Leda then laid an egg from which Helene hatched. She was the goddess of vegetation and blessed with such beauty that she was regarded as the most beautiful woman of her time. That beauty caused many admirers. Her stepfather Tyndareos made them swear to support any man she would choose if a misfortune happened to her. She finally decided to take Menelaos, the king of Sparta, and married him. Her admirers had to fulfill their oath when Helene was kidnapped by Paris. He took her to Troia, which triggered off the Troian War. It took Menelaos ten years to defeat Paris, who had married Helene in the meantime. Menelaos took Helene back to Sparta where she seemed to awake from a spell.

In my opinion Helene’s story itself can not be connected to Calliope. Neither is she beauty (on page 333 Cal even describes herself as ugly), nor has she many admires. She also did not cause any war. But I think that the connection can be drawn from the story of Helene’s begetting. Her parents were both transformed into birds: Leda was a goose, Zeus a swan. In my opinion Middlesex is a novel where transformation is very important. The girl Calliope Helen Stephanides transforms into the boy (and later man) Cal who manages his life alone after a garded live as the chick of a middle class family.

2.2. Minotaur

According to Greek mythology Minos, who was the first king of Crete, asked Poseidon to send him a bull. He wanted to sacrifice it in order to warrant his reign by the gods. Poseidon granted his wish and sends him a white bull. But since it was of extraordinary beauty, Minos decided to hide it in his herd and sacrifice another one. Poseidon punished him for breaking his promise and casted a spell on Pasiphaë. She fell in love with the white bull and even asked Daedalos to build her a costume of a cow. It gave her the opportunity to come closer to him. After her night with the bull, Pasiphaë gave birth to a creature with a human body and a bull’s head: Minotaur. Minos was angry about her unfaithfulness and engaged Daedalos to build a maze into which Minotaur was banished. From then on the king ordered to send seven boys and seven girls from the enemy Athens to the maze in order to feed the creature each year. Theseus finally killed the monster, supported by its half-sister Ariadne, who gave the hero a ball of red wool to find his way. (From this the idiom of the “rote Faden” is derived. Even this is in connection to the plot of Middlesex, as you can read in the next few lines.)

The Minotaur appears about five times in the novel. It is like a thread which runs through the whole novel and I try to sort out the occasions from their reference. The creature first appears when Lefty, Desdemona, Sourmelina and Jimmy Zizmo go to the theater and watch a play about the monster. Desdemona does not enjoy the play. She compares it with paintings in a museum and has the opinion it was nothing but “an excuse to show people with no clothes”[2]. So she insists on leaving before the second act starts and misses the end of the Minotaur. Until then the Minotaur neither appears in the story nor does it frighten Desdemona. But still it is very important, because the night after they had watched the play both women get pregnant. She first starts being afraid of a possible malformation when Dr. Philobosian joins the family for dinner one day. At the table they talk about the fact that the chances were very little that Sourmelina and Desdemona got pregnant in the same night. Lefty says, kidding, that it was the fault of the Minotaur (which actually is the third time the monster appears). Desdemona gets angry after that joke and the conversation skips to deformities. On page 132 in line 9 Dr. Philobosian mentions that people used to think the things a mother was looking at while she had sex, had an influence on possible malformations of the baby. The moment the Doctor tells the story is the moment were Desdemona gets afraid that her unborn baby might be deformed. The fact that Milton was fathered in just the night after she had watched a play about a creature with a bull’s head frightens her a lot. Her husband tries to calm her down, supported by Dr. Philobosian. But his remark that most birth deformities are caused by incestuous marriages makes her be even more afraid. Now she is not only worried about the Minotaur, but also the special relationship to her husband and possible genetic effects on the child scare her.

On page 129 the Minotaur appears for the second time but in two different contexts. The first one is in a short conversation between Lefty and Jimmy Zizmo. Jimmy talks about women and especially his wife. He is not fond of the increasing number of rights, women are getting such as for example driving a car, and only lets his wife so that because she paid the car. Then Zizmo refers to the play about the Minotaur and says women would “all fornicate you with a bull”[3] if they had the possibility to do so and therefore should be locked in a maze called pregnancy. He thinks that the only function of women is having babies. Since Sourmelina is pregnant she fulfils that function. She has to care for the child (because he certainly would not!) and so she would not have ideas like driving the car or at least would not be able to execute them. The second context refers to the maze the pregnancy really is for Desdemona. She is never able to find a comfortable position or forget about her worries. She tries to find a way out of both situation, but she cannot find any, just like being locked in a maze without knowing the right way.

Next the Minotaur is mentioned on page 134. It is used as a symbol for deformed children and also for the unborn baby of Jimmy and Sourmelina. Desdemona is only afraid of a possibly deformed baby, while Jimmy doubts his fatherhood . He does not feel any love for the child of Sourmelina, it appears as a monster to him.

The last time the monster is mentioned is on pages 140 and 141. First the conversation of Jimmy and Eleutherios is interrupted and we can read about how Milton taught his daughter about Greek myths. Their favorite story certainly was the one of Minotaur. First I thought it would make more sense to the story if their favorite myth was the one of Hermaphrodite. But since the Minotaur is some kind of a monster, it cannot be denied that it absolutely applies to the complex story of Calliope. When she looks up the term hermaphrodite, she is linked to monster and although the Minotaur is not mentioned in that part of the novel, we can assume a connection to it. Desdemona’s fear’s her baby could be deformed also refers to the night in which Milton was fathered. Finally there is a child with some deformity and the term for it links it to monster. The Minotaur, which has always hunted the family, finally has arrived.

Later, on page 141, Minotaur appears for the last time, but does not refer to Calliope at all. Cal compares Jimmy’s sudden outburst of rage to the moments of surprise in Minotaur movies. There the monster usually appears from where you last expect it. Lefty also would not have expected his brother-in-law to behave that uncontrolled and angrily as he does in the moment he wants to get to know who the father of Tessie was. The doubts in Zizmo’s mind transform him into a monster.

Looking back at the occasions where the Minotaur appears in the novel, we can say that not all of them refer to Calliope. But nevertheless I decided to mention them, because they are important for the story. Besides, the Minotaur in the story is one of the elements that refer to Calliope indirect and hidden. We can only find one occasion where there is a direct reference – the part where Cal tells the reader that the Minotaur was her favorite myth. All the others deal with the fears of Desdemona having a deformed baby. Milton, Zoë and Chapter Eleven are born healthy, but Calliope is born with a 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. She becomes the Minotaur of the family her grandmother always feared.

2.3. Hermaphrodite

Hermaphrodite was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, which becomes obvious through his name. He was very beautiful so that the water nymph Salmacis fell in love with him, but her advances were refused. When he bathed in her spring she pulled him to the ground and asked the gods to unite their bodies. Her wish was granted and from then on they lived as a being with female breasts and male genitals. The name of Hermaphrodite then became the term for having female and male genitals. The Greek believed that everyone who bathed in the spring of Salmacis would become a hermaphrodite too. The Herder Lexikon Griechische und römische Mythologie the image of a divine creature with both sexes probably has its origin in the Orient.

In Middlesex the term Hermaphrodite is used in its two different meanings. It first appears when Dr. Luce presents Calliope two other Doctors. He uses the medical definition of the term. Narrating Cal already mentions it on page 21. He tells the reader that he would become “the most famous hermaphrodite in history”[4] when the novel is read all over the world. But Calliope first meets the term in her life when she is looking up the term hypospadiac[5] which she has heard when Dr. Luce presented her to two other doctors. She goes to the New York Public library to look up the term and first finds a link to eunuch in the definition. In order to inform herself properly she follows that link and finds another one that she looks up as well:


[1] Eugenides, Jeffrey: Middlesex. New York :Picador (2003). p. 21.

[2] Eugenides: Middlesex. p.123

[3] Eugenides: Middlesex. p.129

[4] Eugenides: Middlesex p.21

[5] Eugenides: Middlesex p. 473

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Elements of Greek Mythology appearing in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
1005 KB
Mythology, Middlesex, Proseminar, Jeffrey Eugenides, Greek Mythology, American Literature
Quote paper
Denise Ellinger (Author), 2004, Elements of Greek Mythology appearing in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/32493


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