The Archeology of Myth

August 16, 2009 § 4 Comments

The Greek Myths I & II (Graves, Robert)

Mythology, to most of us, is ultimately fantasy – superheroes battling fire-breathing dragons, aided or thwarted by whimsical Gods and evil spirits – with a moral at the end. Mythology is closely associated with story-telling. To me, it conjures up visions of open-mouthed, wide-eyed children dangling on grandmaternal (or in my case, grandpaternal) knee and hanging on to every word, as she speaks of Wickedness, Voyages, Trials, Tribulations, War and the eventual and inevitable triumph of Good over Evil.

And yet, what Robert Graves concerns himself with in the two-volume Greek Myths is neither narrative  nor morality. He was, after all, a poet, a literary critic, and a historian as much as he was a mythographer – and so, his quest is poetic, critical, and essentially an historical one.

Mythology comes to us from obscure sources several thousands of years ago, passed on from generation to generation and narrator to narrator. Each retelling changes the story ever so slightly. Individual tastes and imaginations embellish or gloss over different aspects of the story. Political opinions change with time and emphasise different morals. Long-forgotten customs, unfamiliar metaphors and old-fashioned words get confused and misinterpreted. A foreigner with a strange accent relates a folktale from his own country in the marketplace, and before nightfall it is adapted into an episode of the indigenous story. Over time, through this process of truncation, syncopation, incorporation, exaggeration and wilful modification, mythologies morph into the form we are now familiar with.

What Graves attempts, therefore, is a kind of archeology, a forensic examination, an exploratory mining of each myth. He tells us the story itself, compares multiple versions and sources, dusts off the cobwebs of centuries of morality, chips away at the useless details that like cakes of hardened clay, hide the real contours of the ancient tale, and tries to identify nuggets of ‘pure myth’ at the end of the process.

Graves’ overarching theme is that of a society in transition. Olympianism, he argues, is a religion of compromise between the pre-Hellenic matriarchal principle and the Hellenic patriarchy, and out of this tremendous conflict, this primordial churning of society, the myths of Zeus and Demeter, of Theseus, Perseus, Jason, and Heracles were born. He discusses other fascinating hypotheses as well – for instance, that the Trojan war was not about Helen as much as about control of Hellespont, the narrow straits connecting the Aegian sea with the Black Sea, so as to control the lucrative trade with lands beyond, or the possibility that the Odyssey was written by a Sicilian woman, not Homer (a theory first espoused by that astounding original thinker, Samuel Butler), or that Medusa was originally a matriarchal Goddess who was supplanted by  the Hellenic pantheon that made her a defeated monster instead.

I found Graves’ ideas very stimulating, both intellectually and aesthetically, and of a piece with the equally fascinating “The Golden Bough” by Sir James Frazer. I can’t help wondering if anybody has attempted similar analysis on ancient Indian mythology, which has numerous points of similarity with Greek mythology. I may well be tempted to attempt such an analysis one day, if I do not find it satisfactorily addressed elsewhere, and if I could only scale the heights of scholarly erudition that the task requires.

I believe that in recent times, certain scholars have disagreed violently with the conclusions Graves draws. I nevertheless find the hypotheses immensely interesting, and as good an interpretation as any. I also believe that the interpretations, whether one agrees with them or not, enrich the stories – in fact, to me, they are now part of the stories. After all, mythologies belong to world literature, and so to all of us, and no one holds a copyright to the ‘true version’ of the story. And if every version is true, it follows that every interpretation is valid as well.  And that precisely, to my mind, is the point of departure between Mythology and History.

Mythology is to History, I say, as Magic is to Science. You can dispute the facts and demand proofs in scientific procedure; but you can only admire magic, and wonder what it means to you. Arguing about whether it is “real” magic misses the point and takes away from the enjoyment.


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§ 4 Responses to The Archeology of Myth

  • Ah, now I discover you have this blog.
    “Mythology is to History, I say, as Magic is to Science.”
    Nicely put.

  • […] on the question of authorship of the Odyssey – I have referred in another post on Robert Graves‘ Greek Myths, to the theory that the Phaeacian Princess, Nausicaa was the […]

  • […] myth, as Robert Graves noted in the introduction to his Greek Myths (reviewed here by me), is a reduction to narrative shorthard. A set of mythological stories is a system of coded […]

  • Roberto Carvalho de Magalhaes says:

    Thank you very much for the kind review on my book. It’s very difficult to talk about mythology in a clear manner without being superficial. It’s very difficult as well to explain art as far as individual creation is concerned beyond the subject matter. Uniting the two – and dividing the art works by subject matter or myth – made possible to show at least two things: that art is not reproduction or representation, but expression (and your review gets the point) and that classical mythology, with it’s powerful stories, crosses the centuries without ever aging. For a problem of copyright, it wasn’t possible to include many of interesting modern and contemporary art works with mythological subjects, what I did later in an exhibition I curated for the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (Brazil) in 2007 – The Art of Myth – and that will be, unfortunately, dismantled this fall. The exhibiton has a catalogue: The Art of Myth, published by the museum with Comunique Artes. Thank you again.
    Roberto Carvalho de Magalhaes

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