Between the Lines

| November 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

It’s All Greek to Me

I seem to be setting off on a tangent—Greek mythology—and it’s like I’m embarking on a cross-country train trip—I’m not sure which country—with an onslaught of new and familiar sights whizzing by so fast I can hardly keep up with them.

It started with a recent piece in The New Yorker about a new translation of Homer’s “Iliad.” It piqued my interest, but as so many of the references were vaguely familiar at best, I went to a very accessible reference work, “Mythology” by Edith Hamilton, to look up the Trojan War. Well, trying to just drop into it didn’t work either. I had to go to the beginning and read the introduction, which confused me further: I’ve encountered Agamemnon, Achilles, Apollo, Atlas, Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Andromache, and that’s just a handful of the A’s.

I read the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” back in long-ago school days, but my memory of them is dim. I’ve read and seen various interpretations of classical sagas over the years, but I’m still at a loss when it comes to differentiating among the huge cast of characters, both earthly and immortal. As a reader, this is a bit of a stumbling block, as there are frequent references in both classical and contemporary literature to mythological stories and figures, and I miss their significance when I come across them.

Myths are entertaining stories and make up some of our earliest literature. And while much of Greek mythology is about their gods and goddesses, these weren’t written as religious texts; rather, they were efforts toward understanding and enlightenment. As Hamilton sees it, “Myths are early science, the result of men’s first trying to explain what they saw around them.” Myths endeavor to explain the universe—the sun, the moon, and the stars, storms and volcanic eruptions. Thus thunder and lightning were thought to be caused by Zeus hurling his thunderbolt.

The next section of “Mythology” provides thumbnail sketches of the gods themselves, in both their Greek and Latin forms (as if the Greek alone isn’t confusing enough). When I finish these, I figure I’ll be ready to launch into the stories themselves. And what magical tales! From the love stories of celebrated couples like Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, Daphne and Apollo, to the legendary chronicles of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus. Then, if I’m still on board, perhaps my path will lead to rereading Homer himself and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

I believe these tales are relevant, that there are lessons to be learned from these stories today. I concur with Daniel Mendelsohn, who says in The New Yorker article that they continue to raise the question of how we live our lives, how we give them meaning. In a world that often seems to be veering off course, perhaps we could do worse than heed the ancient Greeks.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Life Style

About the Author ()