Greek Myths, And A New Word

The influence of the Greek myths has declined during the past few decades, it seems.  Latin and Greek were once thought to be languages worthy of being taught in our schools, as essential components of a well-rounded education; I witnessed the dying phase of this idea.  When I was in high school Latin was still being taught, but only geeky intellectuals from wealthy families took the optional course.  Now young people aren’t being offered Latin or Greek, as education has assumed a utilitarian role as merely a preparation for the job market.

I didn’t take Latin in high school.  Nobody ever explained to me the possible benefits of learning  a dead language, the tongue of an ancient race which had an enormous influence on our culture.  Yeah, I’m a curmudgeon!

My first exposure to the corpus of Greek mythology was a Classics Illustrated comic book version of The Odyssey.  I still have vivid mental images from that pulpy effort to bring the old stories to young people; the cover is a classic attention-getter:

This past winter I enjoyed reading stories and tales from a Library of America edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short pieces.  Hawthorne was one of 19th-century America’s best prose stylists; as I dipped into the collection, reading such fine stories as “The Birthmark” and “The Intelligence Office”, I happened across the writer’s children’s story collection based upon Greek myths: “A Wonder Book For Boys and Girls”.

The familiar old myths are charmingly retold in the collection, although because the stories were intended for kids Hawthorne thoroughly bowdlerized and sometimes even sanforized the hoary old myths.  The sex and violence were lightly skimmed over or expurgated completely.  Hawthorne’s renditions whetted my appetite.  I recalled that I had somewhere a copy of Robert Calasso’s interpretation of the Greek myths, a 1993 volume entitled “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”.  Some years ago I had started the book but didn’t get very far.  It’s a dense and challenging book.

This time I became engrossed.  Calasso is a born storyteller, treminding me of another Italian author, Italo Calvino.

“The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” has no introduction.   The reader is plunged into a sea of interrelated stories.  Here’s the first one.  Notice how Calasso gives just enough descriptive detail to make the scene come alive:

“On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover’s coo.  It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him.  But this time it was a sweet shuddering.  Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.  Then the white beast dived into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough above the water to keep the girl from getting wet.  There were plenty of witnesses.  Triton answered the amorous bellowing with a burst on his conch.  Trembling, Europa hung onto one of the bull’s long horns.  Boreas spotted them too as they plowed through the waves.  Sly and jealous, he whistled when he saw the young breasts his breath had uncovered.  High above, Athena blushed at the sight of her father bestraddled by a girl.  An Achaean sailor saw them and gasped.  Could it be Tethys, eager to see the sky?  Or just some Nereid with clothes on her back for a change?  Or was it that trickster Poseidon carrying off another wench?

Europa, meantime, could see no end to this crazy sea crossing.  But she guessed what would happen to her when they hit land again.  And she shouted to wind and water: “Tell my father Europa has been carried off by a bull — my kidnapper, my sailor, my future bedmate, I imagine.  Please, give this necklace to my mother.”  She was going to call to Boreas too, ask him to lift her up on his wings, the way he’d done with his own bride, Oreithyia, from Athens.  But she bit her tongue: why swap one abductor for another?

But how did it all begin?  A group of girls were playing by the river, picking flowers.  Again and again such scenes were to prove irresistible to the gods.  Persephone was carried off “while playing with the girls with deep cleavages.”  She too had been gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, violets, irises, hyacinths, narcissi.  But mainly narcissi, “that wondrous, radiant flower, awesome to the sight of gods and mortals alike.”  Thalia was playing ball in a field of flowers on the mountainside when she was clutched by an eagle’s claws: Zeus again.  Creusa felt Apollo’s hands lock around her wrists as she bent to pick saffron on the slopes of the Athens Acropolis.  Europa and her friends were likewise gathering narcissi, violets, rose, thyme.”

Oh, I’m tired of typing.  Come back tomorrow and I’ll type out an example of Calasso’s attraction to perverse and obscene episodes from the Greek myths.  How’s that for a teaser?




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10 responses to “Greek Myths, And A New Word

  1. Linda

    Hey Larry, nice to read your blog again! Just thought I would mention that studying latin is not out of vogue. Kyle took it in high school, college and seminary and Karen took it last semester at ISU.. she said it’s fun to recognize word roots and know the origin! Alas, I never took Latin, would help with medical terminology.

    • Latin isn’t offered in the financially-troubled Quincy school system these days, or so people tell me. I doubt that the language is offered in the Hannibal school system; perhaps conditions are different in more affluent urban areas. Money talks, as the old saying has it! I’ll just obliquely refer to the modern addition to that old saw: “and bullsh** walks.”

  2. Joan

    Is it just me or is there an inordinate amount of swooping down and running off and or ravishing hapless women in the Greek/Roman myths?

    Why did the classic painters have such a field day painting and sculpting ‘the rape of..’ Europa/ The Sabine Women/ pick a myth.. I can’t imagine a contemporary painter idealizing a rape scene, but that is just what they did. Way strange.

  3. Darrell

    Several things. I recall this cover from Classics Illustrated from the comic book rack at Washburn’s Pharmacy on Broadway, between 6th and 7th Streets. I never read it, although my Mom used to bring Classics Illustrated home for me to read, especially when I was out of school with some affliction (Happened often, I was a puny kid). Some time when I’m totally out of things to do, I’ll try to remember all the titles I had at one time or another.

    As for this particular one, I think the Odyssey came out as a spaghetti sword and sandal epic with Kirk Douglas and Tony Quinn, titled “Ulysses” about a year or so later (ca. 1955). Later, we read the Odyssey in school.

    If you want a good read in the Greek myths, try Robert Graves’ “The Greek Myths’ (makes sense as a title). vols 1 and 2.

  4. Darrell

    Oops! I double sent the preceeding.However I did correct my spelling in the second send..
    A lot of ancient writings were sanitized, esp in the 19th century. I think Graves returns to a more proper telling. Eroticism was important in the Hellenic world, strangely (to us) in the way it featured into cities as well as people. In John Romer’s tv series about the ancient Greek world, he draws attention to the sexual aspect a city was supposed to have, as a sort of macro-person, with symbolic body parts. Athens, for example placed a great deal of importance in the wellbeing of the phalli of the public statues called “herms”. When the traitor/patriot Alcibiades defected to Sparta, it was alleged that he had defaced the herms of their “masculine virtues” . . . and Athens was rocked to its core . . . the city had been effectively emasculated.

    Socrates had been Alcibiades mentor and friend (gay?) . . . public opinion now turned against him, for many believed his skeptical, impious, ways had been the inspiration behind Alcibiades’ treason. Athens took its public phalli very seriously!!

  5. Yeah, Joan, rapes seem to have been an obsession of the ancient Greeks. Perhaps this trait was a holdover from even more ancient and tribal times, when the common wartime practice was to kill the males and rape and/or capture the women and girls? The logic of this abhorrent practice was brutal but real: spread your native bloodlines while diminishing those of your foes.

    I also remember when drugstores were a main supplier of comic books. Darrell. BTW, welcome back! It interests me that modern mythologies, such as the fifty-year-old Marvel Comics mythos (X-Men, Spiderman, etc.), seem to have captured the public imagination — the gods of technology.

    Decades ago I read parts of Robert Graves’ “The Greek Myths” — I should revisit that book!

  6. Darrell

    Thanks Larry, glad you’re back.
    Continuing the discussion of eroticism in the classical world . . . I mentioned the herms, but one Ionian city, Priene worshipped a mysteruius goddess called Baubo who obviously had some sortof identity crisis . . or maybe just “had it all together”. See:
    When I was at Priene, I never ran into her, but Priene has to be one of the most beautiful ruins ever. See:
    Or: for pictures.

    Anyway, what are you doing on Center? What about the Market St. abode . . . if I may ask?

    • Hi, Darrell. Some interesting links you have offered!

      I explained in some previous posts why I’m where I currently live — in brief, living the cold and dark life in my building without electricity or water was beginning to get old. An old friend, Myrlene, from my BP station days offered to rent me a room and give me kitchen and internet privileges. The household is a bit chaotic due to two teen-aged girls, Myrlene’s daughters, and a hyperactive and untrained dog named Ubu. It’s working out so far, though.

  7. Darrell

    Okay . . . my oversight. I recall that you had moved out, but didn’t know it was to Center St. Ihope you hang on to the Market St property though. I noticed that my old haunts at the one-time Hannibal Pharmacy . . now the erstwhile Huntin’ Hut has collapsed in the back, and the city is poised to wreck it if they get the chance. Hang on to your place . . . if you do, who knows, as Pericles might be mis-quoted as saying: “Future generations will marvel at you.” ?

  8. I’d sell the Market St. building if I could, but the real estate market is depressed here these days.

    The Huntin’ Hut building has been granted a reprieve. The city can’t afford to tear it down, but a buyer has emerged who will buy it only if he or she is allowed to remove the top story and make it a one-story building. I’m certain the city will grant the permission.

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