16 July 2011

Why I Love Greek Mythology

When I was 6 (maybe 7) I was told the story of Hades and Persephone by a supply teacher at school. I remembered the story, though I'm sure the pronounciation of Persephone (per-sef-oh-nee) escaped me at the time.
It was like a fairy tale, but it explained something and the ending wasn't simply happy, there was compromise.

It later occurred to me that despite their popularity in children's literature Greek Mythology (like most other mythologies) is not especially child friendly. However, possibly because they were viewed as scholarly and academic, Classical myths managed to escape the bowdlerisation that fairy tales underwent. So when they're presented to children they are simply toned down not reworked.
Telling these same recognisable tales is quite a trick for a set of myths that involves kidnaps, killings, weird sexual/reproductive stuff and so, so many extramarital affairs.

I remember having a Usborne book of the Ancient World (I still have it and read it fondly while doing my Ancient History degree) and going back to the page about the Greek pantheon. There was just something fascinating about these figures that represented things, but were also very definite characters.

The interest grew, I read tonnes of Greek mythology books. As I got older the details got more graphic.
Aphrodite wasn't born from a Titan's blood falling into the sea, she appeared when a Titan's castrated genitals were thrown into the sea.

As a kid you accept that the Minotaur was the product of a woman and a bull. As a teenager you realise that's impossible, however you are intrigued to hear that Daedalus (Icarus' dad, who created both the wings and the labyrinth) actually fashioned a 'device' so that Queen Pasiphae (Pass-ih-fie-ee) could slake her unnatural lust for a bull,* whilst wearing some kind of cow disguise.
Now there's a mental image for you.

One of the great thing about Greek myths is that they are interesting stories, with interesting characters. Over 2000 years later there are still themes, emotions and motivations we can understand today. This is probably why the stories get retold and redone so many times, and in so many ways. I'll be the first to admit that I can get a bit pedantic about this particular subject (I usually try to do it for comic effect). But in all honesty Greek myths have been reshaped so many times, in so many ways -and that's just during the BC period- that they are actually fairly malleable, whilst still being a very recognisable set of tales.

At Eastercon Gideon Nisbet (lecturer in Classics) gave a talk and made the point that Classical themes tie very well with SF. He even drew a comparison between Classical Mythology and the comic book universes of DC and Marvel. There's a big cast of characters with a variety of back stories.
This struck a chord with me as I love Greek myth and my husband loves Marvel comics -and we've had discussions over which is more complicated. I maintain that without time travel, alternate/parallel universes, clones, and aliens Greek myth can't be as complicated. Though as I've said above mythology doesn't have canon and there's no editorial hand guiding, but equally there's no change in editor/writer to try and unmake previous tales.

Edited to add:
The text of Gideon's BSFA lecture is now available online for any that are interested.


* She did get hit by Eros' love arrow, I can't remember why just now.

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