Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Web Pages in Archive
Volume 6618

Part II (Concluded from Part I in ERBzine 6617)
by Alan Hanson
Classical Images of Edgar Rice Burroughs 
Part II by Alan Hanson

The River Styx
The Styx was a river, and on a couple of occasions ERB combined the image of Stygian darkness with an episode on a river. For instance, in “Tarzan and the Forbidden City,” Tarzan and other captives were being transported by canoe through a dark tunnel leading to Lake Horus by the Ashairians. Tarzan decided to use the concealing darkness to lead his fellow captives in a break for liberty. Through the eyes of Magra, ERB gave us one of his finest mythological images. “Crouched between two galley slaves, she watched the savage scene with fascinated, fearless eyes. The flaring torch in the bow of the galley painted the scene in dancing highlights and deep shadows against a background of Stygian gloom, a moving picture of embattled souls upon the brink of Hell; and through it moved, with the strength, the agility, and majesty of a great lion, the god-like figure of the Lord of the Jungle.”

The “Warlord of Mars” opens with an image of Stygian darkness even more mythological in nature, considering that it takes place upon the River Iss, Barsoom’s river of death. John Carter, seeking a way to release Dejah Thoris from the Temple of the Sun, followed the treacherous black pirate Thurid across the Lost Sea of Korus into the mouth of Iss where it emerged from under the Golden Cliffs. “Into the Stygian darkness beyond he urged his craft,” reported Carter. Thurid led the way up a subterranean river that emptied into Iss. The route was new to John Carter, and the intermittent darkness along the way described by Burroughs served to heighten the image of danger, perhaps even doom, for the warlord. “What lay behind the darkness I could not even guess,” admitted Carter. “The way was through utter darkness. The stream was narrow — so narrow that in the blackness I was constantly bumping one rock wall and then another as the river wound hither and thither.” Happily, John Carter’s journey down this of mystery turned out to be a mission of hope and resurrection, not death and despair, as the ancient Greeks believed would be their fate along the River Styx.

Perhaps ERB’s best description of Stygian darkness and a descent into an underworld filled with danger is found in “Llana of Gathol.” John Carter and Pan Dan Chee were sent to the pits of Horz for a night while the Horzan Jeddak contemplated their fate. Standing at the head of the rock-hewn ramp leading down into the pits, Carter reported that they were looking down into “Stygian darkness.” As they descended with torches the corridor covered with the dust of the ages, John Carter stopped to look into a dungeon. “A moldering skeleton lay upon the floor, the rusted irons that had secured it to the wall lying among its bones. In the next dungeon were three skeletons.” Not heeding the warning, the two men continued downward, only to be attacked by the largest ulsio that John Carter had ever seen. The Martian rat, the size of a small puma, fought with vicious tenacity, bringing to mind the image of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Tartarus.

Then an enemy they could not fight confronted Carter and Pan Dan Chee. At irregular intervals they saw the glimmer of a light where there should have been no light, and it was always accompanied by a maniacal laugh. Even the nerves of the warlord began to fray under the attacks of this unseen enemy. “That laugh! I can hear it yet,” recalled John Carter. “I tried to think that it was human. I didn’t want to go mad.” In an effort to catch the THING, the two men extinguished their torches and made their way through the darkness toward the mysterious light. “I reached the doorway, and as I stepped into the opening I had a momentary glimpse of a strange figure and then all was plunged into darkness and a hollow laugh reverberated through the Stygian blackness of the pits of Horz.” After John Carter killed the evil Lum Tar O, he was confronted by dozens of warriors rising from decades of sleep in the caskets where Lum Tar O had placed them back in the time when Hors was washed by the waves of the ocean Throxeus. The meeting is reminiscent of an episode in the “Odyssey,” when Odysseus poured blood into a pit to call up from Erebus the souls of the dead, among them the great Greek heroes Agamemnon and Achilles.

The Quest or the Golden Fleece
Perhaps the greatest of all stories of adventure in Greek mythology is the quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason was the heir of rightful king of Greece, but to claim his throne had to agree to go on a quest to retrieve the golden fleece of a ram that had once saved a young prince that the Greeks planned to sacrifice. Jason gathered the most renowned warriors of Greece, Hercules among them, and set sail in the ship Argo. Many dangers were encountered along the way, among them the dilemma of Scylla and Charybdis. The Argo had to pass between two cliffs. On one side, dwelling high in a cliff-side cave, lived Scylla, a six-headed monster that swooped down upon unhappy mariners who sailed too close to her abode. On the other side was Charybdis, a deadly whirlpool that three times a day devoured ships that passed within reach of its swirling waters. Scylla and Charybdis represent the ultimate dilemma for a ship’s commander. There is unavoidable danger, and the commander’s only choice is to which terrible fate he will submit his crew.

In “Carson of Venus,” ERB used the image of Scylla and Charybdis when Carson Napier was hemmed in by dangers on the open seas of Amtor. It happened when Carson was sailing a small boat from Amlot to Sanara in search of Duare. Caught in a storm, Carson reported that, “The seas were like a great, grey army rushing, battalion after battalion, in their assault upon the shore, and we a tiny Argo between the Charybdis of the one and the Scylla of the other.”

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Jason Gridley in “Tanar of Pellucidar, “written in 1928, so it may have been just coincidence that Jason was the name of the major player in “Tarzan At the Earth’s Core,” a sequel to “Tanar.” Still, the analogy is strong. Here another Jason feels compelled to set out upon a dangerous quest, this time a rescue mission. He gathered around him men of great courage — Zuppner, Von Horst, Dorf, Hines — including Tarzan, whose reputation for strength and dauntless courage brought a feeling of confidence to the whole expedition, just as Hercules’ presence had done to that first great quest over three millennia ago. The crew sailed their modern Argo, the specially constructed dirigible, the 0-220. After the organization of the expedition and the embarkation of the 0-220, however, the similarity of Jason Gridley’s expedition on a quest for the Golden Fleece fades to symbolism at best. The Argonauts fought and survived as a team, while ERB dispersed his crew into the wilds of Pellucidar to face their dangers as individuals. In addition, Jason got his gold fleece through the help of the gods and the magic of Medea, while it was the force of coincidence, ever-present in the fiction of ERB, that brought the crew of the 0-220 back together and allowed them to accomplish their goal of freeing David Innes from his Korsar dungeon.

The Great Heroes Before the Trojan War
The most revered of all Greek heroes were those whose adventures took place in the years immediately preceding the Trojan War. They included Perseus, the slayer of Medusa, and Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, the greatest of all Athenian heroes. Finally, there was Hercules, strongest of all mortal men and defier of the gods. ERB was most fond of the image of Hercules, but he did include references to the other two heroes as well.

Burroughs made just one reference to the story of Perseus, and even that is an indirect one. Perseus foolishly promised to bring back the head of Medusa as a present for the Greek king Polydectes. Medusa was one of three deadly monsters known as Gorgons, all with appearances so hideous that whoever looked upon them would turn to stone. Certainly, the image of the Gorgon is the ultimate in ugliness, and thus did ERB use the image in “Beyond the Farthest Star.” When Tangor first arrived on Paloda, the first sound he heard was a woman’s scream. Turning, Tangor got only a quick look at the woman, since he quickly fled into the bushes for the same reason that she screamed — he was in the buff. The lady turned out to be Balzo Maro, who no doubt saw more than enough of Tangor. The earth man, however, reported of Balzo Maro that, “just the glimpse that I had had assured me that she was no Gorgon.” Of course, ERB was practicing hyperbole by contrast there.

ERB made a much more direct reference to the story of Theseus. The classical tale has the city of Athens suffering a terrible fate. Minos, King of Crete, forced Athens to send seven maids and seven youths every nine years to be fed to the Minotaur on Crete. The Minotaur was a half-human, half-bull monster who dwelt in the Labyrinth, a structure of endless winding corridors from which none could escape once they had entered its twisting pathways. Theseus decided to end the scourge of Athenian youth by traveling to Crete to kill the Minotaur. Even the great Athenian hero, however, could not accomplish the feat without help, and that came from Ariadne, the daughter of Minos himself. She fell in love with Theseus at first sight and later gave him a ball of thread that he trailed behind him on entering the Labyrinth. After killing the Minotaur, Theseus followed the thread back to freedom.

Carson Napier found his own labyrinth in the garden of Morgas, the “Wizard of Venus.” “Its walks were laid out in maze-like confusion,” Carson reported, “and I had gone only a short distance along them when I realized that I might have difficulty in finding my way out again; yet I ventured on, though I had no Ariadne to give me a clew of thread to guide me from the labyrinth. The only goddess upon whom I might rely was Lady Luck.”

Next to scenes painted in “Stygian” darkness, ERB made more direct references to the Greek strongman Hercules than to any other mythological image. Hercules was the strongest man on earth and in everything he did he exuded supreme self-confidence. In contrast to the wise Theseus, however, Hercules too often let his emotions rule his behavior, and that led to his downfall.

ERB often referred to Hercules when he wanted to convey the image of great physical strength. First of all, Burroughs at times likened characters to Hercules in appearance with bulging muscles that donated certain great strength. In “Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’,” Oju, a full-grown orangutan, confronted Tarzan. “His enormously long arms, his Herculean muscles, his mighty fangs and powerful jaws dwarfed the offensive equipment of even the mighty Tarzan,” ERB noted. Another Burroughs character with “Herculean muscles” was Bulan, hero of “The Monster Men.” During a battle, ERB referred to “the Herculean muscles that rolled and shifted beneath Bulan’s sun-tanned skin.” In “The Mucker,” the ship Halfmoon was headed for the rocks until Billy Byrne took the wheel. “With the aid of Byrne’s Herculean muscles and great weight the bow of the Halfmoon commenced to come slowly around so that presently she almost paralleled the cliffs again.” In addition, Mugambi, the native Wagambi chief, who was a member of “The Beasts of Tarzan,” is later referred to as an “ebon Hercules” in “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.” 

While there may have been only a handful of Burroughs characters described as having the awesome physical strength of Hercules, there were quite a few others who, on occasion, were capable of exerting a “Herculean effort.” In “Tarzan the Terrible,” Korak made a miraculous trek into Pal-ul-don to rescue his parents. Along the way, Korak had to cross the murky morass that surrounds Pal-ul-don like a moat. He “advanced only by virtue of Herculean efforts gaining laboriously by inches.” In “The Moon Maid,” it took “Herculean efforts” by Julian 5th to break his bonds after he had been captured by the No-vans, and in "Tanar of Pellucidar," it took a “Herculean movement” by Tanar to break the grasp of the Korsar Bohar upon the Sarian’s throat as they battled over Stellara. Finally, in “Jungle Girl,” Fou-tan fought frantically but in vain to release herself from the “herculean grasp” of her captor, Prang the wild-man.

Hercules’ reputation for strength was best exhibited in the “Labors of Hercules,” 12 impossible tasks he undertook to purge him of the shame he felt for having killed his wife and children in a fit of madness. Among the labors were the killing of Hydra, the nine-headed swamp monster; the diverting of two rivers to clean the Augean stables; the bringing back of the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons; and the bringing up of Cerberus, the three-headed dog, from Hades. Certainly, none of ERB’s characters ever performed a task the magnitude of the “Labors of Hercules,” but at times Burroughs did refer to a monumental effort by one of his characters as a “Herculean task.” For instance, in “The Cave Girl,” Waldo Smith-Jones’ transformation in six months from a skinny, cowardly weakling to Thandar the killer is described as a “herculean task.” In “Tarzan the Magnificent,” the ape-man performed a “herculean task” when he used spear, knife and hands to excavate a ramp in an elephant pit so that the captured Tantor could walk up to freedom. Burroughs also at times used the term “herculean task” sarcastically, such as when he used the term in “The Mucker” to refer to Barbara Harding’s efforts to put a saddle on her horse Brazos. “Three times she essayed to lift it to his back before she succeeded in accomplishing the Herculean task.”

ERB made reference to Tarzan in comparison to Hercules a number of times. In terms of physique, Burroughs seemed uncertain or whether or not Tarzan should have the bulging muscles that marked the Greek hero. In “Tarzan the Untamed,” the ape-man is described as “a mightily muscled Hercules out of the dawn of life.” However, later in “Tarzan and the City of Gold,” ERB pictured Tarzan as “tall, magnificently proportioned, muscled more like Apollo than like Hercules.” Bulging or not, there was no doubt that the muscles of the ape-man carried the strength of Hercules. In “Tarzan and the Forbidden City” ERB referred to “the Herculean strength of the Lord of the Jungle,” and in Pellucidar Tarzan battled a Horib while Jana, the Red Flower of Zoram, watched in amazement. “Again and again Tarzan whipped the mighty body over his head and dashed it to the gray earth, while the girl, wide-eyed with astonishment at this exhibition of Herculean strength, looked on.” Another girl who marveled at the great strength of the ape-man was Janette Laon, the French girl who was put in a cage on the deck of the Saigon with the “wild-man” in “The Quest of Tarzan.” After Tarzan finally decided to leave the cage, Janette “watched with amazement the seeming ease with which those Herculean muscles had separated the bars.”

In addition to his mighty muscles, Hercules was know for his lack of emotional control, and on at least one occasion, Burroughs portrayed Tarzan in a true Herculean tableau, one in which great strength was turned loose in a fit of anger. In “The Return of Tarzan,” a woman whose screams lured Tarzan to an ambush in Paris’ Rue Maule district, watched with horror as Tarzan tore through the 10 men who had intended to kill him. “Instead of soft muscles and a weak resistance, she was looking upon a veritable Hercules gone mad.” For the most part, however, throughout his life Tarzan was able to temper the use of his great strength with reason and humanity, and, in that respect, he was most unlike the sad figure of Hercules.

In the final analysis, Burroughs almost always assigned “Herculean” strength to protagonists and seldom to villains. Obviously he revered the image of strength embodied in the character of Hercules, as had the early Greeks who created him.

The Trojan War, legend has it, took place about 1,000 B.C., and Homer’s record of it and Odysseus’s long journey homeward to Greece mark the chronological end of Greek mythology. Homer is believed to have been a blind wandering storyteller. His stories told in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were retold over many generations and written down for the first time hundreds of years after his death. They constitute the oldest written stories that have come down to modern times.

A couple of ERB’s characters actually read the works of Homer in their earliest forms. In “Tarzan and the Lost Empire,” Erich von Harben, who had been well educated in lost languages, found a sort of archeologist’s heaven in the library of the lost city of Castrum Mare. There “he discovered only unadulterated pleasure in his work, and thoughts of escape were driven from his mind by discoveries of such gems as original Latin translations of Homer and hitherto unknown manuscripts of Virgil, Cicero and Caesar — manuscripts that dated from the days of the young republic.”

Britannicus, the British slave of Caligula, also read Homer in “I Am a Barbarian.” As a slave in a royal Roman household, Britannicus learned Latin and read the poems of Homer, no doubt in the same translations that Van Harben was to read in the lost African city nearly1,900 years later. However, Britannicus’ studies continued for 10 years in the house of Caligula until he no longer had to read translations. “I also read in the Greek,” he wrote, “the works of the philosopher Aristotle, the poet Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey prompted me to become a poet.”

On occasion, ERB made reference to the content of Homer’s stories. For instance, in “I Am a Barbarian,” the slave Tibur describes to Britannicus the fabulous ship of Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse. Tibur told of dozens of rooms on the ship. “All of these rooms had floors of mosaic work with all sorts of tessellated stones on which the entire story of the Iliad was depicted.” Helen of Troy had “the face that launched a thousand ships” to rescue her, but Burroughs used her vanity, not her beauty, in making a most unusual comparison in “Jungle Tales of Tarzan.” Teeka, the great ape, shrilled with delight as Tarzan and Taug battled for her favor, and although thousands died over Helen during the Trojan War, Burroughs reported that “Helen of Troy was never one whit more proud than was Teeka” at the moment that Tarzan and Taug fought for her.

Burroughs referred to the cause of the fall of Troy in a light-hearted manner in “I Am a Barbarian.” Britannicus and Attica were taking one of their walks along the Via Appia, when Britannicus spoke disparagingly of Caesar. Attica brought a finger to her lips, warning Britannicus that men had been crucified for making such comments. Looking around, Britannicus responded, “There is no one else here.” Attica pointed to a cow in a nearby pasture and whispered, “Do not forget the fall of Troy.” Britannicus reminded her, “That was a horse, not a cow.”

Following the fall of Troy, the victorious Greeks dispersed and headed for the homes they had left nine years earlier. However, Odysseus, the Greek chieftain who had come up with the idea for the wooden horse, had made an enemy of Poseidon, and was destined to wander for 10 years before returning safely home to Ithaca. One of the dangers that Odysseus and his men had to survive was the curse of Circe, the beautiful woman whose lovely songs drew men to her irresistibly and made them forget their native lands. It was another such intoxicating lady who made Jason Gridley lose his sense of responsibility in Pellucidar. While he was supposed to be searching for his lost comrades, Jason instead found himself chasing after Jana, the Red Flower of Zoram. Jason finally realized the spell that had been cast over him. “Why, she has made a regular monkey out of me,” he soliloquized. “Odysseus never met a more potent Circe. Nor one half so lovely.”

To Burroughs, however, his character most like Odysseus was the Apache hero of “The War Chief.” Shoz-Dijiji left his tribe to search for the 50 ponies required to claim Ish-kay-nay for his wife. Many miles away he found and stole the horses, and the driving of them back toward the tribe’s country is described by ERB as being in the heroic tradition of Odysseus. “How he took them, alone and unaided, across those weary, burning miles, through scorching deserts and rugged mountains equally scorching, along a trail beset by enemies, pursued by wrathful vaqueros, would well have been the subject of a deathless epic had Shoz-Diijiji lived in the days of Homer.”

The classical images of Edgar rice Burroughs that have been detailed in this essay have for the most part been mere surface projections of a much deeper and detailed mythological vein that runs through the heart of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Obviously, the formal education of his adolescence, painful as he professed it to be, laid down in his psyche a firm appreciation for the classics. Years later in his writing that appreciation was to come out whether he willed it or not. The extent to which Burroughs is indebted to classical literature is debatable, but surely had its influence been missing from ERB’s fiction entirely, much of the beauty and majesty that gave this author staying power would have been lacking.

— The End —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Warlord of Mars
Llana of Gathol
Carson of Venus
Tanar of Pellucidar
Tarzan At the Earth’s Core
Beyond the Farthest Star
Wizard of Venus
Tarzan and 'The Foreign Legion'
The Monster Men
The Mucker
The Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
The Moon Maid
Tanar of Pellucidar
Jungle Girl
The Cave Girl
Tarzan the Magnificent
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan and the City of Gold
The Quest of Tarzan
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
I Am a Barbarian
Jungle Tales of Tarzan
The War Chief

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

Visit our thousands of other sites at:
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2020 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.