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?