Boardwalk Mythology: Hit TV Series Refers to Ancient Greece’s Althaea

Throughout its illustrious five-year run which – foolishly and sadly, in this writer’s (and fan’s) estimation – is coming to an end with years left in its prime, the critically-acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire has had a smattering of Greek references over the years, beginning in Season 1, which featured Greek hoods shaken down in Prohibition Era Chicago by the far more powerful Johnny Torrio Gang, whose skullcracker-in-chief at the time was an up-and-coming Al Capone.
But in Season Five Episode 6, the antepenultimate one of the series, a little African-American girl – about seven years old – is seen in Harlem, circa 1931. Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a notorious but scholarly character, approaches her: “what’s your name?” he asks. “Althea,” she answers. “It’s pretty. Do you know what it means?” he asks again. She doesn’t. “It means healing – in Ancient Greek,” he instructs.
Well said, Doctor. Even though we root against you, we cannot deny that you are a man of immense knowledge.
According to the ancient mythographer Apollodorus, Althaea (pronounced al-THAY-ah) bore at least two children fathered by Ancient Greek gods: Meleager by Ares, and Deianereia by Dionysus. Some myths, however, state that Meleager’s father was the vintner, Oenus.
Althaea is best known for the role in Meleager’s death. When he was born, the Moires (Fates) predicted that Meleager would live as long as a brand (seal) bearing the family name was not consumed by fire. Immediately upon hearing that, Althaea hid the brand, so as to protect her son. Years later, however, Meleager was involved in the great Calydonian Boar hunt, also described by Homer. In the hunt, he included Atalanta, a successful huntress with whom he was in love. When she won the prize, Meleager’s brother Toxeus and uncle (Althaea’s brother) Plexippus were enraged that the prize went to a woman. An argument ensued, and Meleager killed the both.
Angered over this, Althaea, in turn, killed her son Meleager by retrieving the brand and placing it in a fire. Then, Althaea she took her own life.
Though Althaea ultimately murdered her own son, the “healing” aspect was when she originally hid the brand to spare his life.
Quite an intricate tale, more so even than Boardwalk Empire, which thousands of years later made the symbolic reference. But how was it symbolic? One of the final season’s overriding themes is healing, in a sense: more specifically, making things right. Many of the show’s characters – not least of which main character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played masterfully by Steve Buscemi – reflect on their past transgressions and, in some way, try to redeem themselves. Hence, little Althea enters the picture, as a symbol of healing.