Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fluid Myths

This Daniel Mendelsohn piece eloquently confirms what I tell my students when we're discussing the Odyssey and they try to pin me down on this or that Greek myth:

Shaped as we are by printed literature, we tend to think about myths as texts as immutable as, say, “Anna Karenina.” In the same way we know that Anna Karenina is the woman whose passion leads her to the underside of a railway carriage, we think of Oedipus as a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Jocasta, and then, after the ghastly revelation of what he has done, blinds himself and goes into exile. (Jocasta hangs herself.) If the name Helen of Troy comes up, we think of the adulterous Greek wife whose passion for a handsome house guest started a world war. But for the Greeks—whose culture was, even in classical times, still a largely oral one—myth was a great deal more fluid. Not twenty years after Sophocles put on his “Oedipus Tyrannus”—whose huge popularity from ancient times on has crystallized the self-blinding-exile-hanging version of the story—Euripides presented his tragedy “Phoenician Women,” in which Oedipus and Jocasta are still shuffling around the palace long after the revelation of incest and adultery. As for Helen of Troy, some people may be startled to learn that she might not have run away with Paris at all—and that, therefore, the decade-long Trojan War, like some other wars through the ages, was based on a fatal hoax. In his play “Helen,” Euripides dramatized a tale that had been in circulation since not long after Homer. Here the woman whom Paris takes home is just a phantom spun from clouds; the real Helen, virtuous and loyal, is spirited away to Egypt, where she weeps for her sullied reputation and mourns her husband, Menelaus, who eventually turns up and rescues her.

To us, brought up on the D’Aulaires’ “Book of Greek Myths,” all this may seem odd. It’s as if Tolstoy’s novel were only one of many possible “Anna Karenina”s, and there was a version in which the heroine acts on her final, panicked moment of hesitation, climbs back from underneath the train in the nick of time, and goes home to squabble with Karenin. But the Greeks had no “Book of Greek Myths”; they just kept tampering.

Of course, this is also a convenient way for me to dodge the fact that some of my students may know Greek mythology more thoroughly than I do.


Sean said...

Neat post, Frank. When doing Greek myth, I always start by spending a day or so asking them to think about Batman. I start by asking them to make a list of the "identifiers" of Batman. What are the things, essentially, that tell you a guy in a movie is Batman and not Superman or Joe Schmoe. They usually come up with things like black armor, bat sign in the sky, gadgets, etc. Then, we look at lots of images of the different Batmans in TV, comics, movies over the years, and I ask them to point out which of identifiers that they listed are present in any given permutation and which aren't. Invariably, they're hard pressed to find even a few identifiers that can be found in every version. And yet, I point out, when they sit down to see Christian Bale in the black suit, nobody freezes, utterly confused because he doesn’t look anything like Adam West.

Batman isn't a static personality but a nebula of qualities. When an artist sits down to render Batman within his/her vision, he or she need only hit on some of the entries on that list of identifiers that we came up with at the beginning. Having done that, he or she then gets to mess around with rest, dropping some, inventing others. Which identifiers get chosen as the ones that are messed with and the ones that are maintained is entirely up to the artist. Thus, Christian Bale’s Batman still has a black suit, Alfred, and a Batmobile, but there’s no Robin and he’s been trained in martial arts in Asia.

So is it, I explain, with the characters that populate Greek myth. I like to transition by pulling out images from different periods in Ancient Greek history of a particular character (Athena works great for this) and going through the same process that we did in Batman. Homer’s Athena is the Athena particular to Homer’s story. Phidias’ Athena is the Athena particular to Phidias’ statue. “Athena,” in general, however, is an intertextually created idea, a loose confederation of ideas and characteristics, some of which are etched in stone and others in sand depending on the angle a given rendition takes. (I always love to point out at this point, that that is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Christian scriptural tradition: Jesus, as a figure, is not confined to the specific perspective any one human’s particular rendition of his story. John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark are all seen as simultaneously “right.”)

You might be interested to know that Euripides was the first person to make Medea the one that kills her kids (earlier traditions had Hera doing it), and yet, now his version is “canon.” Closer to home, however, you might be intrigued to know that there were traditions what presented Penelope as a model adulterer. In those versions, Pan, a satyr god of lewdness, ecstasy, fear, and the wild, is born of Penelope after she has sex with all of the suitors.

Whew! Sorry for the long-windedness there; I just know exactly where you’re coming from on this issue. (Oh, and if you want any of the materials associated with this, just let me know.)

Sean said...

Oh, by the way, if you're interested in some dense but interesting reading, Adrian Johns' "The Nature of the Book" makes one of its objectives an exploration of how European traditions of printed word evolved over time such that we now think of there as being only "one" Anna Karina and to write a version in which she steps back would be ridiculous/sacrilege. (I've only read part of it, but seemed germane to the article's reflection.)

framiko said...

I love the Batman analogy, Sean. I may have to steal that one.

Your students are lucky to have a teacher who knows his Greek myths so well!