- The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks
Cape, 403 pp, £19.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 224 03037 X
Mythology was once defined by Robert Graves as the study of whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true. Mythical stories are disturbing and invite disbelief; but our own myths are so taken for granted as to be largely invisible. Conventional encyclopedias of mythology exclude Biblical narratives. ‘Religious knowledge’ remains a compulsory school subject, while instruction in traditional mythology is normally a by-product of some more reputable form of training. In English culture one might think that the Greek myths have been exploited largely for decorative effect. The myths are domesticated and trivialised in modern intellectual and popular culture: we speak of the Oedipus complex, Cupid’s arrows and Pandora’s box. But the dissemination of the Greek myths in England since the Middle Ages, so far from being an accidental or casual affair, was a direct result of the pedagogical revolution embodied in the rise of the universities and grammar schools.
For hundreds of years the Greek myths played a central, if unacknowledged, part in the curriculum which was the common possession of the English educated classes. Yet the myths’ entitlement to a place in any curriculum has been controversial since the very beginnings of speculation about curriculum design. The fact that Christianity could be regarded as a mythology did not become apparent in Europe until sometime in the 19th century; its official position in the English school system has not been seriously questioned until our own time. In ancient Athens, however, fewer than two hundred years separate Pisistratus, who established the text of Homer and prescribed it for study in the schools, from Plato, whose ideal curriculum banished mythological study.
Plato argues in the Republic that, since only good can come from the gods, the traditional tales of the Greek gods and heroes cannot be true; and even if they were true they would corrupt the young. Among the crimes committed by the gods which young people ought not to know about, lying, laughter and rape are prominent – though Plato’s views on lying and laughter possibly do not bear investigation. He maintains, for example, that the future Guardians of the Republic should not be exposed to tales or instances of lying, but he also says that the Guardians themselves are the only citizens who should be allowed the privilege of lying when reasons of state demand it. Rape, however, is different. Plato unequivocally condemns the tales of heroes like Theseus, not to mention Zeus himself, ‘going forth to perpetrate a horrid rape’. Plato is not alone in being shocked and disturbed by the prevalence of rape in the tales.
Roberto Calasso’s evocation of the corpus of Greek mythology begins with a rape, and returns to the theme with numerous reflections on the metaphysics – not the ethics – of rape. In ethical terms we will not get very far with the Greek myths if outrage is our only response to stories of rape. Calasso quotes Herodotus’s relaxed, man-of-the-world view that to abduct women is generally considered to be the ‘action of scoundrels’, but to worry about abducted women is the ‘reaction of fools’. ‘Had they not wanted to be abducted, they would not have been,’ Herodotus observes. In Greek mythology there is little point in distinguishing between rape and abduction, and had women not been raped there would have been no history, or even perhaps no world.