Thursday, December 12, 2013

And the Gods heard her prayer....

As promised with my last update, we're going to Eastern Europe and the Greek peninsula.Back in time to the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras, specifically. Back when the Gods roamed the Earth, having children with nymphs and humans alike.

The problem has been for a while that most translations tend to cut out the interesting parts in favor of making it a more G-rated pantheon. And given that most Americans only study Classical Mythology once or twice, usually in Elementary School, this makes sense, since no one really wants to discuss with prepubescents that Kronos cut off Uranos's penis or testicles (depending on translation) and threw them into the ocean, thus creating Aphrodite.

However, Oh My Gods by Philip Freeman tries to correct this a bit, with more accurate translations, although he did modernize a few of them. (This is not to say that he set them in modern time, more that some of the stories get a more modern filter.) This works well at times, however, it doesn't work well in other cases.

Again, we're getting the less sanitized translations here, which means we also get information on same sex lovers different gods and heroes took. (Like Pelops. Who's life ends when his dad, Tantalus, chops him up and makes him into a stew for the gods. Only Demeter doesn't notice, because of her Persephone issues. The Gods restore Pelops to life and make him a new shoulder to replace the one Demeter ate. Then he becomes Poseidon's lover before starting his own tragic house.) I will also say it was nice to hear the story of Perseus's conception as a shower of golden coins, rather than the less specific "Zeus came on Danae as a golden shower" in most versions (which carries a VERY different modern connotation than what the Greeks intended.)

On the bad side, the author takes any considerations of consent and seduction out of the picture (which other "adult" translations generally keep), thus making it seem like Zeus is less about questionable seduction and more about sexual assault. The main reason why I can't quite go along with this (and Zeus isn't the only one who seems to be performing forcible penetration while wearing a ski mask) is that most of the actual rape gets punished rather severely and violently in the mythos.

The book itself is organized by different subsets of myths, starting with Creation and running through the Aeneid and some of the myths surrounding the founding of Rome (Romulus and Remus, who sadly have nothing to do with Star Trek. Then three very brief tales of Romulus's descendants.) Most of them are fairly familiar, just more fleshed out than what one was taught early in life. And it becomes very obvious which tales the author loves the most, based on the treatments they get. (Really, he spends most of The Odyssey quoting directly from Homer, which is beauteous  in its own right. However, Theseus's travails get very glossed over, meaning we never really get a good glimpse at the challenges he faced. He also leaves off the tail end of Bellepheron's tale, where Bellepheron tries flying the Pegasus up the side of Olympus to join the gods and gets struck by Zeus's thunderbolt for hubris.)

Things I very much liked were his habit of discussing different tellings of the myths when multiple sources disagreed as to what happened. (The creation of man get lumped in here, since Plato's Republic and the discussion on the origins of soul mates gets thrown in. As do some of the fates of characters from Homer's epics.) I also loved the tales included under "The Lovers", since more than a few of them were new to me. Like Ceyx and Alcyone, who get turned into Kingfishers at the end. Or Pyramus and Thisbe, who are the subject of the play within a play in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. (I chuckled and said, "Oh Wall, show me thy chink!" when I read the myth.)

I also really enjoyed how Freeman presented gods about whom we can prove little about. Hades, for instance, is an Olympian, but the only major myth he really is a part of is more a story about Demeter. Or Hecate, whom we know was worshipped, but she shows up once in the myths. Much as I'd like to know more about those two and Hestia, who also really doesn't seem to have much to do, there really isn't much material that survived that goes into any detail about their stories.

One thing I really disliked is that there's no real chronology here. There isn't a real sense of what order this stuff happened in beyond the initial Creation and Clash of the Titans (when Zeus overthrew Kronus and cut off Kronus's genitals with the help of the Hundred Handed Ones) and the Heroes and the Lovers. Honestly, we don't enter any kind of chronology until the last few sections when we meet Jason and the Argonauts and proceed into the Illiad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Now, I'm going to mention another book here as a contrast to Oh My Gods, one very near and dear to my heart. Great Zeus and All His Children by Donald Richardson, which is out of print. (Or at least it was in 1996.) The reason I know this one is that it served as the textbook for CLS 101 at Wright State University where I took the class and had my eyes opened to the myths beyond what I remembered loving as a kid. (Yes, I was a Classics minor.) Again, it's the unsanitized version, but, unlike Oh My Gods, Richardson made the myths as linear a narrative as could be done with several centuries worth of myths with lots of variations cropping up as the stories evolved. Richardson also kept as many of the titles and mnemonics as he could when referring to people places and things. Thus we hear about rosy fingered Dawn  spreading her fingers over the sky, the wine dark sea, etc. Richardson, however, left out more than a few stories that Freeman includes, and Richardson's gods are mostly heterosexual. I think Ganymede gets mentioned in passing.

There are also entire myths and fragments both books miss that I know from other sources. Like that of how Athena became Pallas Athena (Thus her Palladium in Troy), or bits of the story of Persephone before and during her abduction to Tartarus. (Like the boy she turns into a lizard who dies, then his shade feeds her the pomegranate seeds in Hades. Or how she takes the time to give Tantalus food and drink.)

I did label this as survey/synopsis, mainly because there are other things I want to mention while were here. The Greek myths have been around for quite some time, and show up both obliquely and blatantly in literature. The aforementioned Shakespeare borrowed heavily from them. Neil Gaimen borrowed from them for Sandman. There's a wonderful book by Marie Phillips called Gods Behaving Badly about the Greeks in the modern age. Heck, even I have borrowed from the myths to write a story or two.

There's also the exceedingly awful The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Which removes all the fun of the Illiad and replaces it with a so over the top parody of feminism Cassandra as to make it unreadable. I should have known better than to read it after reading The Fall of Atlantis. With a title like that, I was expecting Atlantis to sink. It didn't.

I'll also mention Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons, which is a very bizarre mix of Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and science fiction. Like 30th century recreations of Troy bizarre. With Caliban running around on Earth bizarre.

And the WebMage series by Kelly McCullough, which centers around the Greeks in the modern era as well. Even if his version of Persephone is much darker than what most of us will encounter in other collections.

There is one last book I'll mention, and this may be the only time I ever link to Amazon on here. Olympus, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Bruce D. Arthurs is one of the most amazing anthologies of modern Greek mythology. Like any anthology, some of the stories are hit or miss, but there are two standout comedies; one involves the entire House of Atreus on a Jerry Springer type talk show, the other involves Demeter getting annoyed that Persephone comes home early after a marital spat with Hades, forcing her to start Spring early. Those alone make it worth owning.

In short, Oh My Gods is a worthy read for anyone with an interest in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. While you won't find all the myths, you will find a very wide selection and a bibliography of where the author found them. Which is very handy for when I actually learn Greek and brush up on the Latin.