Bay Reads - May/June 2018
Ancient myths were stories written to explain the natural world and teach moral behavior. These are tales of heroes achieving amazing feats in spite of their flaws and hubris.
The myths are early science as well as early literature. They were the result of what humans saw and understood of the world around them. Greek and Roman myths may be ancient, but they contain insights as timely as ever.
My friend Jeannette recently told me about a series of children’s books she purchased for a young family member. "Mini Myths" are based on ancient Greek mythology.
She and the child delighted in reading the set of eight books with titles like “Don’t Get Lost, Odysseus” and “Brush Your Hair, Medusa”. On her suggestion, I explored myths and their place in our culture and literature.
Greek mythology has provided inspiration to poets and artists from ancient times to the present day. Dating to the 8th century BC, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are the oldest Greek writings available. Plato is probably the most famous Greek writer. His dialogues include the “Republic” and “Symposium.”
Sophocles wrote 123 plays including “Oedipus the King” and “Antigone.” Only seven of Sophocles’ plays survived intact. The list of ancient Greek writers includes Aristophenes, Euripides, and Herodotus.
Roman writers were heavily influenced by Greek literature. “Metamorphoses” by the Roman poet Ovid contains much of what we know about Greco-Roman mythology. Ovid’s writings influenced the works of Milton, Shakespeare, and Chaucer. Virgil, author of “The Aeneid,” is probably the most famous Roman poet.
My personal favorite is the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by Ethan and Joel Coen. This satire is based on Homer’s poem “The Odyssey.”. The film is set in Depression era Mississippi and tells of three convicts who undertake an epic journey to retrieve a treasure. The central character is Ulysses, the Latin variant of the name Odysseus, the hero of the epic poem.
In addition to the Young Adult books, the list of books inspired by mythology is long and diverse. “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman weaves ancient myths into modern culture and was made into a television series. Margaret Atwood, famous Canadian author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” wrote “The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope & Odysseus.”
Madeline Miller, a Latin and Greek scholar, wrote “The Song of Achilles,” a novel about the Trojan War, and the newly published “Circe” about the goddess of magic and sorcery. Nashville writer Ann Patchett wrote about “Circe”: “An epic spanning thousands of years that’s also a keep-you-up-all-night page turner.” It’s currently on my nightstand, and I can’t wait to read it.
Mardi Gras is filled with mythic names. Nereids, Muses, Hermes, Iris, Comus, Endymion are only a few named for Greek and Roman gods. Perhaps no Mardi Gras krewe is more aptly named than Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry.
Other well known allusions to Greek and Roman mythology include:
- Midas touch - King Midas wished every thing he touched would turn to gold which included the food he ate. This tale is a warning about the damaging power of greed.
- Pandora’s box - Pandora was created by Zeus as revenge on mankind. Her curiosity led her to open a forbidden box which unleashed plagues and other evils.
- Herculean size or task - Hercules was the strongest man on earth. His confidence that he could never be defeated was well-founded.
- Achilles’ heel - At birth, Achilles’ mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable. She held him by his heel which left that part open to danger. His heel was struck by an arrow leading to his death.
- Sisyphean task - Sisyphus, punished by Zeus, had to eternally push a rock up a mountain.
- “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” - The Greeks presented a giant horse statue to the Trojans as a peace offering. Inside the horse was Odysseus’ army which destroyed Troy and won the war. A “Trojan Horse” has come to mean any trick leading to a target unknowingly inviting an enemy into their domain.
It is a Herculean task to reduce Greek and Roman mythology to a few paragraphs, but even a cursory look points out its value to Western civilization.