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.
There has, of course, been no shortage of allegorical interpretations of the divine rapes and other crimes which litter the Greek myths. Plato was already conscious of the possibilities of allegorical reading, though he found them irrelevant since a young person cannot distinguish between what is allegorical and what is not. The story of Europa and the bull, which Calasso recounts on the first page of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, has obvious allegorical possibilities, since the bull was the emblem of Minoan civilisation. The story might conceivably have less to do with female violation than with the magic of naming, which is central to our modern experience of the myths since they continue to provide us with so much of our vocabulary. Europa stands for Europe, we may wish to say, just as Narcissus is the original narcissist and Harmony is harmony.
The divine rapes (and much else) in Greek myth have been interpreted as figuring military invasions. At a more general level, they can be seen as a projection of the supposed triumph of patriarchal over matriarchal forms of society. Such explanations appealed to Robert Graves, whose two-volume collection of The Greek Myths first appeared in 1955. For all his reputation as a hierophant of the White Goddess, holding court in his Majorcan retreat like some minor god in exile, Graves was strongly attracted to political and sociological readings of the myths. He brought to them the same taste for multi-layered interpretation that had earlier made him a pioneering critic of Modernist verse. A story revealing the creative essence of humanity and the cosmos could, at another level, be decoded as the ideological glossing-over of a military victory. At the same time, like the grand mythographical theorists of earlier generations to whom he is plainly indebted, Graves ultimately believes that all myths are the same myth. His brief introduction to The Greek Myths modestly advances a near-universal explanation of the myths in terms of moon and sun-worship and fertility-ritual – in effect, the Key to All Mythologies for which George Eliot’s Mr Casaubon had so fruitlessly sought. Frazer’s The Golden Bough had shown how such a key could be announced to the world: not as a poetic revelation, but in the secular modern form of a scholarly treatise.
In The Greek Myths, Graves suppresses his poetic flamboyance and offers a sober and methodical translation of the myths in an orderly scientific setting. Text and commentary remain rigidly separate. (The commentaries, which have been found idiosyncratic, could be updated by an editor in the light of new knowledge.) Graves’s indispensable reference-work could not be more different from Roberto Calasso’s elegiac and evocative reinterpretation of the myths and their world. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is not a work of reference. It has neither chapter-titles nor index and – bizarrely, because it is in no sense a novel – it appears in the fiction section of Cape’s catalogue. Its aphoristic and oracular style owes much to Nietzsche, whose collected works Calasso (a Milanese publisher) has brought out in Italian. Where Graves respects and observes the generic boundaries, Calasso deliberately blurs them.
The densely-woven prose and elliptical narrative make this a difficult book to read through, though it repays the effort. It both retells the Greek myths, loosely following the same chronological sequence as Graves, and makes them the subject of an intricately-wrought essay in cultural theory. Yet its matter will infuriate the cultural theorists, being the record of a single-minded absorption in the Greek inheritance and of a lofty refusal of any kind of commitment to modernity. Since Umberto Eco is Italy’s leading cultural theorist cum-novelist, it is not for nothing that Calasso has been dubbed the ‘anti-Eco’.
He begins with an epigraph from Sallust – ‘These things never happened, but are always’ – and there is more to this than a Freudian or Nietzschean anthropological view of the Greek myths as the sources of primordial truths about the human psyche. Calasso writes of seduction as ‘the invincible impulse’, of possession as ‘the highest form of knowledge, the greatest power’, and of the sacrifice of virgins as ‘the origin of every dark eros’. This litany of essences, ultimates and origins is tied to particular stories – of Zeus and his women, of Apollo and Dionysus, of Agamemnon and Iphigenia – and we may feel that it is vouched for by the very words used to assert it. Thus the permanence of the Greek eros can be made to sound self-evident by the mere repetition of the concept of the erotic and of the word eros. Part of the purpose of Calasso’s narrative and expository method is to recapture the magical dimensions of mythical language.
For Calasso it took divine interference in human affairs to set history in motion, and history is inherently Hellenic or post-Hellenic. This book acknowledges nothing or almost nothing that is outside the sequence of the Greek ages, and its real theme is perhaps to rewrite this sequence of ages in the light of a nostalgia for Calasso’s own version of the Golden Age. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony stands or falls by its re-creation of the Golden Age when the gods appeared and reappeared on earth, and could pick and change their shapes at will. Rape was, as often as not, the purpose of such metamorphoses. In some cases the consequence of rape was the birth of a god or a hero, in others the birth of a monster. Then in no more than two or three generations the heroes made themselves redundant by killing off all the monsters, before slaughtering one another beneath the walls of Troy. After the age of heroes comes the alphabetical age, when all that remains is to keep telling the old stories. Soon we can perceive the beginnings of the modern condition in which gods and men become indifferent to one another, and societies embodying a principle of godlessness are set up.
The monsters that the heroes set out to kill were among the last vestiges of the age of metamorphosis. They survived into the period when temples were built, when statues took the place of the presence of the gods, and when transformations were sought by artificial means. Pasiphae had to crouch inside a wooden cow when she became enamoured of a bull, and her son the Minotaur was trapped (like Lucius in The Golden Ass) inside his incongruous shape. Daedalus, the architect of Pasiphae’s insemination, designed the first pair of wings so that he and his son could escape across the sea like birds. The wooden horse the Greeks built to enter Troy was a rational stratagem depending for its effect on the Trojans’ credulity and readiness to believe that the age of metamorphoses and divine manifestations was not past. After that, the Greek statues would suffice to preside over the temples whose absent deities could, at best, be placated by offering sacrifices.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is haunted by the possibility of an imaginative return to the moment when gods and human beings shared the world with one another. ‘A life to which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living,’ Calasso declares in conscious or unconscious parody of Oscar Wilde on the subject of utopias. But the necessary consequences of inviting the gods were rapes, abductions, sacrifices and the beginning of history. The gods for their part were gratifyingly interested in human beings but could not help regarding them as clockwork toys, playthings that in no time became the focus of Olympian squabbles. The story of the sorceress lynx is all too characteristic. Part of the story may be guessed by anyone familiar with Jynx Torquilla, the wryneck.
Iynx (the daughter of Pan and Echo) was a sorceress who made up love potions. One day she offered a drink to Zeus. The god drank the potion, and the first woman he set eyes on was Io, wandering about in Hera’s sanctuary in Argos. Zeus was possessed by love for Io, and jealous Hera turned Iynx into a wryneck as punishment. Later, Aphrodite bound a wryneck to a little wheel, making a sort of perpetual motion machine in which the jerky twisting of the bird’s neck would help to keep the wheel revolving. She gave this toy to Jason, who used it to seduce Medea. Medea became infatuated with Jason and helped him to seize the Golden Fleece. Thus the maker of love potions becomes a wryneck, but the wryneck when tamed and harnessed as a divine plaything possesses the properties of a love potion. At one level this story exhibits the simple constitutive magic that was to be recaptured by Kipling in the Just So Stories. Another level is more disturbing, since it speaks of a time when creation was still reversible, before a love potion was clearly and irretrievably a love potion, and a wryneck a wryneck. This was a time when everything still hung suspended on the whims of the gods.
Once history had begun, men could only approach the gods by making sacrifices and through initiation into the occult mysteries. As The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony progresses, it not only tells of the death of the heroes and the foundation of the Greek cities, but dwells more and more on the Mysteries and the ‘vertigo’ that they inspired in their devotees. Perhaps this book itself should be seen not so much as a recital and reconsideration of the myths but as the record of an initialion process. One stage of this initiation is for the reader to learn to accept and revel in the multiple variants of each mythical story. A myth which survives in only one version is ‘like a body without a shadow’, Calasso observes. (More than this, the mythical narratives sometimes seem to change their shapes as freely as the gods themselves.) The most puzzling and most paradoxical variants are often the best. A second stage of initiation brings us to see the mythical narrative as a kind of deconstructible dream-text, in which Apollo and Dionysus or the hero and the monster may be one and the same, and in which Helen of Troy was a phantom or simulacrum of the real or bodily Helen, who was left behind in sanctuary in Egypt after Paris abducted her, so that the ten years’ war need never have been fought.
When Heinrich Schliemann excavated the ruins of Troy, he astonished his contemporaries by proclaiming that the Homeric epics had pinpointed the site of an actual fortified city. In Calasso’s hands, archaeology and ancient history recede, as if Schliemann and his successors had never held a spade. Pride of place is given instead to speculative anthropology and psychohistory, with the aim not of revealing the key to all mythologies but of reviving and reinvigorating the Greek myths as a primary source of aesthetic experience. But there is no such thing as an aesthetics without content – an aesthetics, that is, shorn of ethical and political implications. For this reason Calasso counterposes the world in which the gods were present with the awful example of a godless society – that of Sparta.
In Sparta the traditional cults were superseded by a single temple, built close to the communal dining hall: the temple of Fear. Under its utopian ruler Lycurgus (‘he who cairies out the works of the wolf’) Sparta continues to be associated with ideas of Puritanical nobility and virtue – Plato’s Guardians were based on the ephors or overseers of the city. But Calasso’s virulent critique shows how the Spartans, having abolished the old gods, set out to ape the Olympian deities and to repeat their worst crimes. The most revealing legend about the ephors, according to Calasso, is the story of Skedasus, an outsider who made the mistake of trying to report the rape of his two daughters by the Spartan soldiery. The overseers took no notice of Skedasus’s allegations, and the poor man committed suicide.
In Calasso’s eyes, however, indifference to the gods rather than indifference to rape is the heart of the Spartan tyranny. Once the gods were banished, the poets and storytellers (as we see from Plato) would soon follow. The poetic view of rape seems to say that what is odious if performed by a mere man takes on an air of sublimity if performed by a god or a hero. The gods came down to earth in a moment of annunciation, violent, brutal and brief, leaving behind them the ‘sign of the overwhelming power of the divine’. The annunciation is also an insemination. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is the powerful expression of a writer who is himself enraptured by the Greek myths, which he sees as anything but historical relics. Would a less metaphysical and more sceptical approach to this body of myth ‘but take its greatness with its violence’, to misquote Yeats? Calasso does not risk this, preferring to fan the embers of the old stories, and to exchange our supposed enlightenment for their afterglow. This all too seductive study is the book Walter Pater might have written, if he had turned his attention to the Greek myths and had read up on Nietzsche, Freud and modern scholarship. Calasso’s readers may have come to understand the Greek world better – they have certainly been possessed by it.