Eris and Manthara: Two Intriguing “Villains” in Mythology

My first exposure to mythology was during a family trip to India.  I was about seven years old when I discovered a stack of comic books called “Amar Chitra Katha” in my cousin’s room.  From the first time I picked one up, I was hooked.  The stories about heroes from Indian mythology were mesmerizing.  All I wanted to do was read as many of those Amar Chitra Katha comics as I could before we returned to the U.S.

I stumbled across Greek and Roman Mythology the summer before eighth grade.  There was a well-worn copy of Edith Hamilton’s book, Mythology, at the library.  The timing of my discovery was fortunate, because my eighth grade English teacher discussed the subject for a large portion of the school year.  I’ve been addicted to Greek and Roman mythology ever since then.

Decades have passed (literally, because I am that old!) and I still can’t get certain characters out of my head.  Two female characters in particular have always intrigued me:  Eris, the Goddess of Discord, and Manthara, the servant of Queen Kaikeyi.  They originate from two very different cultures, but their stories bothered me for the same reason.  Both women were vilified for causing wars.  But the stories rarely discuss what spurred these women into setting the wars in motion.

ERIS AND THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS

In Greek Mythology, Eris was the Goddess of Discord.  There are two explanations of her origins.  One is that Eris was the daughter of Zeus and Hera.  The other story, which I am more inclined to agree with, is that she was the daughter of Nyx (Night).  Either way, Eris wasn’t known for being fun at parties.  She left mayhem and destruction in her path, so the Olympians tried to avoid her.

All hell broke loose when Eris discovered that she wasn’t invited to the wedding of Thetis, a sea goddess (or Nereid), and Peleus, a mere mortal.  She showed up at the reception and tossed a golden apple inscribed with the words “For The Fairest” into the middle of the banquet hall.  This caused the chaos that she wanted among the goddesses in attendance.  Eventually, three major goddesses were left standing:  Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), Athena (Goddess of Wisdom) and Hera (Goddess of Marriage).

The three goddesses asked Zeus to decide who was the fairest.  Zeus, who didn’t ascend the throne of Olympus by being stupid, refused to make the judgment.  He told them to find some poor schmuck named Paris, a royal prince of Troy, since he was an excellent judge of beauty.  The three goddesses appeared before the unsuspecting Paris, who was tending his father’s sheep.  Instead of asking him to judge their beauty, the goddesses offered him a variety of bribes.  Hera offered to make Paris the ruler of Europe and Asia.  Athena stated that Paris would lead the Trojans to a glorious victory in a battle with their archenemy, the Greeks.  Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world.  Her name was Helen of Sparta.  Apparently, Paris was a lover, not a fighter, because we all know which bribe he selected.  And thus began the Trojan War.

On the surface, this story never made sense to me.  Why would the Olympians intentionally antagonize their resident “shit stirrer?”  Zeus had to know that Eris, of all goddesses, was going to get revenge.  Sure enough, after a little digging, I came across a site called Mythogora that finally provided me with a satisfactory answer.  According to this site, Zeus wanted a war that would eliminate the demi-gods, who were “unholy” unions between gods and mortals.  He used Eris (and his own demi-god daughter Helen) to ignite the events that would lead to the Trojan War.

MANTHARA AND THE RAMAYANA

The Ramayana is one of the two most influential epic tales in India.  (The other one is the Mahabharata.).  At a very basic level, it is a narrative example of how men and women should conduct themselves when pursuing dharma or the “right” way to live.  The Sage Valimiki, who is also a character in this story, is given credit for writing this 24,000 verse Sanskrit poem.  For me to say that the Ramayana is comparable to the Odyssey and the Illiad probably underestimates the influence that it has on current Indian culture.  Both the Ramayana and certainly the Mahabharata are closer to the Bible in terms of influence on Indian society.

The Ramayana, or “Rama’s Journey” is the story of one of the Lord Vishnu’s avatars named Rama.  (NOTE:  An avatar is a earthly incarnation of a god in Indian mythology.)  I won’t discuss the entire story in this post, because it is LONG, but this is the ultimate tale of good prevailing over evil.  Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka.  An epic battle ensued between Rama and Ravana.  Rama ultimately won the battle, slayed the beast, and saved the girl.

One of the most pivotal characters in the Ramayana is Manthara.  She was the loyal maid to one of the King’s three queens, Kaikeyi.  When Rama’s father, King Dasharatha, decided to coronate his eldest son Rama by Queen Kausalya, every person in the kingdom of Ayodhya was happy.  Well, almost everyone.

Manthara, who was a servant and had nothing to gain or lose by the coronation, was outraged by the news.  Her mistress, Queen Kaikeyi also had a son with King Dasharatha.  Manthara, in a fit of misguided loyalty, states that Kaikeyi’s son Bharata should be crowned king instead of Rama.

Although originally happy about Rama ascending the throne, Kaikeyi slowly succumbs to Manthara’s insidious henpecking.  King Dasharatha once granted Kaikeyi two “boons” for saving his life.  Manthara convinces Kaikeyi to cash in those favors with the King.  Kaikeyi uses the first boon to seat Bharata on the throne and uses the second boon to banish Rama to a forest for fourteen years.  Rama’s loyal wife Sita follows him to the forest where she is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, thereby setting the events in motion that led to the war.

This story has always wanted to make me pull my hair out of my head for MANY, MANY reasons, but I’ll just discuss one in this post.  If Manthara had never meddled, Rama would have sat on the throne and Sita never would have been kidnapped.  What on earth provoked Manthara’s behavior?  Were Rama or Sita ever cruel to her?  Not likely, since they are supposed to be the human embodiments of everything virtuous.  Was she trying to please Queen Kaikeyi?  No, because until those Manthara’s poison dart whispers started, Kaikeyi was happy about Rama’s coronation.  So what was it?

Fortunately, before I succeeded in losing all of my hair, I found a reasonable explanation in comment sections on a few Indian websites.  I still have to verify its accuracy, but this explanation makes more sense to me.  Once again, the gods were behind the scenes, pulling the strings and letting a woman take the fall.  The Devas, or gods in Indian mythology, were alarmed by the prospect of Rama ascending the throne.  Rama’s sole purpose as an avatar was to come to earth and slay the demon king Ravana.  Apparently, if Rama was coronated king of Ayodhya, it would have interfered with his demon-slaying.  So all of the Devas went running to Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, who came up with a plan.  Saraswati tampered with Manthara’s thoughts and Manthara infected Kaikeyi.  Rama was banished to the very forest where Ravana was lurking and the rest is mythology.

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