Plato made it up

Writing about myth and the stories we tell ourselves by Margaret Anne Doody, Marina Warner, Mary Beard, Anne Carson, James Davidson, Tom Shippey, Joanna Kavenna, Lorna Sage and Michael Wood.

Fear of Rabid Dogs

Margaret Anne Doody, 18 August 1994

In his last days, the exiled and ageing Aristotle wrote to a friend: ‘The lonelier and the more isolated I am, the more I have come to love myths.’ We may puzzle over what Aristotle meant. Did he love folk-tales, religious stories or high-minded allegories? The Greek word mythos means (centrally) ‘story’ but all stories have or acquire meanings, and we tell ourselves stories all the time. A culture is the stories that it tells itself.

Did she go willingly? Helen of Troy

Marina Warner, 7 October 2010

Ever since Mephistopheles summoned a devil to delude Faust into believing that Helen of Troy stood before him and would make him immortal with a kiss, there has been something fugitive about her; for Laurie Maguire, her beauty, being absolute, cannot be grasped, and so leaves desire famished, unappeased. Helen of Troy comes to represent, not an ideal worth dying for, but a gap in meaning, a vanishing.

Diary: Medea

Marina Warner, 3 December 2015

The fantastical way of reading a myth, often more sheerly pleasurable, is usually discounted as childish make-believe. It has been most powerfully adopted by writers like Philip Pullman who are read principally by children. It also serves the crucial mythic purpose of mapping limits and prohibitions, demarcating the centre ground where fathers don’t eat their children, brothers don’t marry their sisters, and mothers don’t cut their babies’ throats.

Give her a snake

Mary Beard, 22 March 1990

The myth of Cleopatra may offer women an image of power, but at the cost of implicating them in the misogynistic fantasies of patriarchy. For women, ‘Cleopatra’ is a trap.

Plato Made It Up: Atlantis at Last!

James Davidson, 19 June 2008

The Lost City of Atlantis consisted of a field of white towers: hydrothermal vents, populated by tiny see-through creatures. So did this mean that Plato had been on to something? Was this yet another example of a myth becoming reality, or at least a myth with a core, a kernel, a germ, a grain of truth?

Gloomy/Cheerful: Norse mythology

Tom Shippey, 3 January 2008

The trouble is that the Norse myths, and the literary and artistic clichés derived from them, have become part of the cultural wallpaper, like flying saucers and earth-mothers and ley lines and vampires. Hardly anyone knows where the ideas came from, but almost everyone knows what they are.

Diary: in Tromsø

Joanna Kavenna, 31 October 2002

Walking through Tromsø, lashed by a frigid wind, I wonder how Nansen seriously expected the world to believe that this was the tranquil land of Thule. But the merging of sky, land and sea which deterred Pytheas is a conspicuous feature. Under the constantly accumulating snow, everything becomes monochrome – and the snow is a beautiful, idyllic white, continually refreshed before it can turn to slush.

‘Where the plates of different realities met, there were shudders and rifts. Chasms opened. A man could lose his life.’ This seismic imagery is, in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground beneath Her Feet, the most important metaphor for the universality of change, and one of the title’s main meanings. Both Ormus and Rai adore Vina, but the ground beneath her feet opens up and swallows her. And then Ormus goes after her. They are eaten up by the violent mythologies of the times, myths they themselves fed.

On His Trapeze: Roland Barthes

Michael Wood, 17 November 2016

There is no lonely existential insight that will save us permanently from prejudice and platitude. But we can try thinking, and keep at it. In his later years Roland Barthes was less keen on demythologising. The old myths remained as blatant and largely unquestioned as ever, but he realised more and more that myths can only be replaced by other myths.

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