Category Archives: Classical Mythology

Greco-Roman mythological themes appear in these posts.

Moon Base

Late last year scientists announced that a tunnel they’d found on the moon (remotely, of course) would make an ideal location for a human colony. The moon, you see, is quite cold and, lacking an atmosphere, constantly exposed to naked solar radiation. It’s a tough sell, even for first-time buyers. Still, with a little hole to crawl into, and some homey touches, this might be the future of humanity. Of course, offshore relocation has been a staple of science fiction from the beginning. Technically encumbered by the whole speed of light thing, we’re left with neighboring planets and moons that are either too hot or too cold, our species having evolved on the Goldilocks of solar system real estate. Moving to the moon might sound like a good idea right about now, but it’s going to take more than Two Guys and a Truck to get us there.

Fantasies of moving abroad come in two varieties—those of optimism and those of pessimism. Either things are going so well that we want to spread the evangel of our soaring success to the universe or things are looking so terribly Republican that even the dark side of the moon seems enlightened. There’s no question which phase we’re in at the moment. The moon is relatively close after all. It has been a fairly quiet neighbor over the millennia. We’ll want some good insulation, however, and despite the Weir version of Martians, we’ll depend on those back earth-side to send us some grub every now and again.

In ancient times the moon was frequently a goddess. Some ancient cultures pegged our satellite as masculine, but many saw her gentle light as more befitting a powerful female. Heading outside in the predawn hours with a full moon overhead is a pleasant, if chilly, reminder of just how bright our constant companion can be. Light without heat. Ancient desert-dwellers found the moon more benevolent than the sun, for night was relief from the fierce heat of day. Still, moving to the moon would meaning making a new world in our own image. Nothing, I suspect, would defile a goddess quicker. Our costly detritus already litters the once untouched face of Luna, and our size-nine-and-a-half prints are permanently left behind there. Heaven has always been that undiscovered country somewhere over our heads. The discovery of tunnels on the moon where we might snuggle down and be free may sound great. But we need to get things settled out on the ground first, otherwise our one and only satellite will merely become our next victim to exploit.

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.

Classical Education

Andrew Dickson White famously wanted Cornell University, unlike what would become known as the other Ivy League schools, to be non-sectarian. Most Ivy League universities were founded as seminaries or with the strong influence of churches. On farmland gifted by Ezra Cornell, in Ithaca, New York, the school became one of the first truly secular world-class universities. As I approached Ithaca over the weekend, my wife told me that the town had once been briefly known by the name of Sodom because the remote location’s reputed notoriety for sabbath breaking, horse racing, and profanity. It is now considered one of the most enlightened towns in the country. Famous for its waterfalls and gorges, one of the cascades is still rejects the biblical slur with the sobriquet “Lucifer Falls.”

Many place names—indeed, much of American culture in general—reflect(s) the Bible. Ours is a culture in denial of just how formative religion has been for who we are. Because of our willful blindness on this point we sometimes run the risk of being entrapped by our heritage. Despite how much we’ve educated ourselves we still see what we want to see. Our religious heritage is often considered an embarrassing family secret rather than the path by which we came to be a civil society. Religion is so frequently portrayed as an evil force that it’s easy to forget just how much we owe it for our evolution. Even education itself had a religious motivation since teaching students to read was often done with the intent that they should read the Bible.

Like nearby Binghamton, Ithaca has a statue dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It bears a biblical quotation from Amos without embarrassment. Ithaca today is a livable, socially conscious community. Recycling is strongly encouraged while cars are not. Hardly a hotbed of immorality, it is one of the great examples of an American college town. Ideas are welcome here. Befitting its classical heritage of education, the city is named after the island ruled by Odysseus, according to Homer. Indeed, Ulysses lies just down the road. Homer (and yet another town in the area bears that name) presented Odysseus as among the smartest of the Greek kings. Like most classical Greeks, Odysseus was only too conscious of how the gods could interfere with one’s life. Instead of denying the obvious, however, religion was recognized as a necessary source of culture. Not that it always has to be taken too seriously. Maybe it shouldn’t be completely ignored either.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Classic Fiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the ancient documents still widely recognized, at least by name. Many introductions to literature, or the western canon, refer to it. It is, in some senses of the phrase, the world’s first classic. I’ve read Gilgamesh enough times not to know how many times it’s been. During my doctoral days I was focusing on the literature of neighboring Syria (long before it was called “Syria”). As an aside, Syria seems to have gotten its name from the fact that non-semitic visitors had trouble saying “Assyria” (which was the empire that ruled Syria at the time). Leaving off the initial vowel (which was actually a consonant in Semitic languages) they gave us the name of a country that never existed. In as far as Syria was a “country” it was known as “Aram” by the locals. Back to the topic at hand:

Although the story of Gilgamesh may be timeless, translations continue to appear. It won’t surprise my regular readers that I’m a few behind. I finally got around to Maureen Gallery Kovacs’ translation, titled simply The Epic of Gilgamesh. Updating myself where matters stood in the late 1980s, it was nevertheless good to come back to the tale. For those of you whose Lit 101 could use a little refreshing, Gilgamesh was a Mesopotamian king who oppressed his people. (And this was well before 2017.) The gods sent a wild man named Enkidu as a kind of distraction from his naughty behaviors. In an early example of a bromance, the two go off to kill monsters together, bonding as only heroes can. They do, however, offend the gods since hubris seems to be the lot of human rulers, and Enkidu must die. Forlorn about seeing a maggot fall out of his dead friend’s nose, Gilgamesh goes to find the survivor of the flood, Utnapishtim, to find out how to live forever. He learns he can’t and the epic concludes with a sadder but wiser king.

The fear of death is ancient and is perhaps the greatest curse of consciousness. When people sat down to start writing, one of the first topics they addressed was precisely this. Gilgamesh is still missing some bits (that may have improved since the last millennium, of course) but enough remains to see that it was and is a story that means something to mere mortals. Ancient stories, as we discovered beginning the century before mine, had long been addressing the existential crises of being human. Thus it was, and so it remains. No wonder Gilgamesh is called the first classic. If only all rulers would seek the truth so ardently.