Reading Diary: Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves
These myths are not solemn, like Bible stories. The notion that there could be only one God and no goddesses did not please the Greeks, who were a gifted, quarrelsome, humourous race. They thought of Heaven as ruled by a divine family rather like any rich human family on earth, but immortal and all-powerful; and used to poke fun at them at the same time as offering sacrifices.
In remote European villages even today, where a rich man owns most of the land and houses, much the same thing happens. Every villager is polite to the landlord and pays rent regularly. But behind his back he will often say: "What a proud, violent, hasty-tempered fellow! How ill he treats his wife, and how she nags at him! As for their children: they are a bad bunch! That pretty daughter is crazy about men and doesn't care how she behaves; that son in the Army is a bully and a coward; and the one who acts as his father's agent and looks after the cattle is far too smooth-tongued to be trusted . . . Why, the other day, I heard a story . . ."
If I weren't Catholic, I'd want to be Greek! And not Greek Orthodox, mind you--but Greek pagan!
For the Greek myths are resilient! Other ancient legends have been weathered over time, but those of Greece still have their immortal faces. After five thousand years, Zeus is still recognisable as Zeus . . . even though a time traveler from then might think we've dressed him up in funny clothes.
The astrologer Linda Goodman once said something similar about the characters of the twelve Sun signs--which are, of course, deeply rooted in the same mythology. You will never find an astrology book that says that Aries is modest and retiring or that Leo will take an insult lying down. It is thanks to the same tradition that has preserved the millennia-old myths, and kept them "pure," despite countless retellings over the centuries.
And so there is no such thing as a definitive telling of any myth--especially not in English . . . or even Latin--and any attempt to get to the story behind all the traditions, literary and otherwise, that have been born of it over the centuries, is doomed to fail.
Only a really clueless purist would insist, for instance, that Percy Jackson and the Olympians is the wrong portal to Olympus simply because it is contemporary. I mean, any novel that sets the gateway to the Underworld in Los Angeles, California totally gets what the Underworld is all about.
But back to Robert Graves' book . . . I've had my friend Cathy's copy of Greek Gods and Heroes for a long time, but resisted reading it. In between the lines of the few snippets I had sneaked was a very definite wink from a writer who had failed to hide his cheeky side--and I was afraid his book would be another Tanglewood Tales.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's take on the myths was actually my introduction to most of them--and for years, I thought Hades had kidnapped Persephone because he wanted a little child to brighten up the Underworld the way little girls brighten up a home. I also still roll my eyes at his "alternative ending" to Theseus and Ariadne's story, in which Theseus never abandoned her, because dumping girls on islands isn't what nice boys do, and Ariadne asked not to go on with him, because running away from their fathers isn't what nice girls do. Well, if you need a moral for your audience and the main story is already there . . .
Compare it to Zeus' assumption of different forms in order to court mortal lovers. The one woman who insisted on seeing him in his true form died the moment he revealed himself. It's a useful allegory, for all myths have to disguise themselves a little in order to come to us. Sometimes they slip into an artist's unique vision; other times, into a writer's unique style. (I should say at this point that Graves' style is really a lot of fun.)
Accordingly, when it comes to the Greek myths, no "traditional" written canon exists. The myths are much older than that sort of tradition. (No tiresome sola Scriptura controversy here! Another reason to convert to paganism!) All these stories we first encountered on the printed page were originally "written" in the heavens by--the first tellers assured us--the gods themselves. They are not just stories; they are also stars.
So it's worth asking whether someone in a book culture who has read everyone from Ovid to Rick Riordan has any hope of truly understanding the myths, if he has not also studied the sky by night . . . and the woods and mountains by day.
If Orion is my favourite constellation,
does that mean it's also my favourite myth?
does that mean it's also my favourite myth?
Image Sources: a) Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves, b) The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, c) Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, d) Orion