10 March 2010

+JMJ+

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?

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


CymLowell

25 comments:

Warren said...

I should have a very difficult time living either as one who cannot enjoy these myths, and see that they give voice to some ancient aspect of our humanity, nor should I care to live in a world where the pagans were still the ones toting the swords, knives, or guns, as the case may be.

These days, your basic pagan is like Willow or Jenny Calendar, in "Buffy the Vampire slayer". They are rewritten, bowdlerized, altogether warm and fuzzy.

I should hope and think a real pagan, alive in modern times, would actually be somewhat like Merlin, in That Hideous Strength. He or She would have a gravity about him, and would be at once both dangerously fey and incontrovertibly straightforward.

W

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Which is why I didn't say I wanted to be a neo-pagan. ;) There is nothing impressive about paganism-lite. (But note also that the Greek myths never found a comfortable incarnation in Joss Whedon's universe. I think you're comparing the proverbial apples to oranges here.)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Every time I go camping, I make whoever is with me listen to all the stories of the stars because I think they're SO COOL.

(It's also interesting how similar many of the myths are--the Pleiades are the Seven Sisters in Greek (even though there's only six stars) and the Seven Brothers in Cherokee legend. Sirius is the Dog Star in both Greek and many Native American cultures. I could nerd out about this all day if you let me.)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Who's stopping you? ;) Nerd out all you like!

It's awful to live in a big city and barely see the splendour of the night sky . . .

pennyyak said...

Tanglewood Tales is reaching back a bit, but my father's mother ran a bookstore, so he made it to married life with a terrific selection of such books.

Anyway, from all I've read, I think if you wanted to go back to ancient Greece, you might hope to be re-born as a male. Being female in that time - I don't know, En. Might cramp your style.

'S true I think - modern pagans are hideously boring.

Cozy Book Nook said...

I recently commented to another blogger that I wanted to reread Bulfinch's... think I might read this one first. In my teens, I devoured all the myths of the world that I could find-- all fascinating and so many commonalities-- like Lindsay said.

Did any of you read Neil Gaiman's American Gods or Anansi boys? I love all his works but might not appeal to everyone.

Lesa

Michael said...

I mean, any novel that sets the gateway to the Underworld in Los Angeles, California totally gets what the Underworld is all about.

Heh. Having lived in California I think it can just as truly be stated this way, "any novel that sets the gateway to the Underworld in Los Angeles, California totally gets what Los Angeles is all about."

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.

To ask the question is to answer it.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Pennyyak: I actually don't think I'd mind being a woman in Ancient Greece . . . as long as I wasn't a Spartan woman! (Then again, they would have killed me as a baby, if had been born in Sparta, so that's not really an issue.)

Modern pagans have no edge!

Lesa: The elements common to all myths are interesting to me, too, but what I find most fascinating are the unique ways those elements were fleshed out in those disparate cultures. Hermes and Loki are obviously the same archetype, but how did one turn out so golden and other so malicious?

The only Neil Gaiman book I've ever read is Good Omnens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. Now that I've mentioned it, I should say that Gaiman's treatment of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is very much like Riordan's treatment of the Olympians, except that Gaiman broke with tradition by swapping Pestilence with a new character named Pollution.

Michael: Then it's an even more perfect fit than I originally thought! ;)

Now excuse me while I splurge on a ticket to Greece . . . and a good telescope . . .

Michael said...

Now excuse me while I splurge on a ticket to Greece . . . and a good telescope . . .

Telescope? You think the ancients used a telescope. :-) Maybe you ought to hook up with some North American Indians before heading to modern Greece, LOL!

Still, I think the following quote expresses well what you are asking:

Understand, O man, what you are reading. Can one truly know these things from ink? Or does the taste of honey pass over the palate of the reader of books?

~ St Isaac the Syrian

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I know they didn't have a telescope! I, however, adore my gadgets. There are some advantages to living in this century!

Michael said...

Yes but don't you wish you sometimes had a time machine? =)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

A machine seems so crude. =P In my dreams (really), I travel through time by running really fast into a wall. The wall just disappears. Well, okay, that seems crude, too . . . and a DeLorean is very cool.

Let's just say I wish I could travel through time and leave it at that, aye?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

By the way, since I forgot to say it the first time, that quote from St. Isaac is wonderful! Thank you!

pennyyak said...

I was going to say you would need a time machine to get a delorean, but I see people still have those things. Maybe Jay Leno would let you borrow his. I think they're as ugly as sin.

And you thought politics was contentious.

Michael said...

Hmmmm...a little Protestant literalism going on here, eh? ;-)

Okay, okay maybe I wasn't so clear but I was using time machine as a euphemism for time travel. I didn't have a particular mode in mind.

But you are right, a DeLorean is very cool. =)

I imagine being able to travel back in time and having my DeLorean appear as whatever mode of transportation is in vogue at the time just to blend in. But imagine someone stealing your "horse", thinking it was just a horse. Hmmm...

Michael said...

By the way, since I forgot to say it the first time, that quote from St. Isaac is wonderful! Thank you!

You are welcome. I thought you might like it.

Imagine its application and the trouble we could cause if that other blog was still active. =)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Penny, I actually did see a DeLorean several years ago, and I have to agree that it was a bit of an eyesore. =P

However, like many 80s fads, I think all it really takes to be "worn" well is some attitude from the driver! (And perhaps a more dramatic paint job!)

pennyyak said...

An 80's thing - well, that explains it. But the doors - I remember the first time I saw them, and I thought (for sure) it looked to be from some magic century when everything would be super cool - the 21st? I've revised that thought.

Paul Stilwell said...

Deep waters.

It gets more interesting when one considers the mode that Genesis was written in.

And I'm thinking of Tolkien...who was, by his own admission, inclined to [going back to] the paganism from which his favourite myths came.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

In that case, I should read more Tolkien! (I once had a Holy Week in which my "sacrifice" was to read nothing but religious books and Tolkien. Some might say that was actually an indulgence! =P)

The differences between the Norse myths and the Greek/South myths really tug at me. I love the quality of "Northerness" in the former (which Tolkien was trying to capture in his own myths) and find the myths themselves more of a prefiguring of Christ than their southern counterparts . . . but geographically, it worked out rather differently.

Suburbanbanshee said...

Well, if you really want to do nothing but sit around the dimly lit house all day and spin and weave your fingers to the bone, varying your routine with all the other household indoor chores, except for the rare occasions when you went to festivals that were all about tearing things apart in a frenzy, I guess you can be a Greek woman.

When I found out that even the brothel women in Athens filled in every spare moment by spinning and weaving their fingers off, I finally felt like I understood the female lot in classical Greece.

Being a classical Greek man wasn't much more fun, though. You may have gotten raped as a boy or teenager. You were sure that your slaves, your wife, your sisters, and your children resented you, and your father probably gave you a really hard time, while you competed with your brothers. It wasn't as bad as the pre-classical period, but it wasn't too normal.

Greco-Roman women had more fun. A lot more. A lot a lot.

Sorry to be such a downer. Being reminded of the whole Gigi thing always puts me in an anti-everything mood.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Admit it: you're not really sorry!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Ooops! Forgot the wink . . .

;-)

Also, I just read your other comment and I must say that movies of psychological horror can leave me hating the world, too! =P

Karen said...

In Hebrew, the word for "Holy Spirit" is feminine. I'm not sure that interests anybody else as much as it interests me.

I've never quite gotten over the fact that most neo-pagans have a tendency to gloss over the fact that the actual quote is "The whole of the Law shall be this: do as thou wilt." No warmth. No fuzziness. And some scary side-effects.

If I had to choose, I think I'd rather be a Roman woman. More money and better parties;)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Karen, I think it interested the Catholic apologist Scott Hahn for a while.

Roman woman is also my first classical choice. I was just filled with more happiness by this book than I've felt since I first started delving into mythology . . . until Banshee showed up to be a real buzzkill!