Areopagus Volume LXV
Welcome one and all to the sixty fifth volume of the Areopagus. How suddenly the nights seem to have drawn in and the air grown so much colder after twilight! But I shouldn't be surprised, for October is here... and yet it still surprises me every year as one season melts imperceptibly into another.
That was a stanza from Poem in October by the inimitable Dylan Thomas. If you have trouble following him word for word, fear not, for Thomas is usually rather hard to grasp. But in his winding and somewhat obscure lines I inevitably find myself delighted. What did Miley Cyrus say about the mountain and the climb? Alas, enough introductory prattling! Not so many weeks ago I asked you about ancient mythology. Your answers got me thinking about the subject. So I started writing and... here, instead of the usual seven short lessons, is another special edition: an essay, for your critique and perusal and use, on the nature of myths.
Prometheus, the Poem of Fire
Alexander Scriabin (1910)
Performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus, conducted by Pierre Boulez
Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole (1847)
Given that the theme of this week's Areopagus is ancient mythology, it seems only appropriate to share with you a piece of music inspired by the very same, for there is no lack of operas, ballets, and concertos inspired by the likes of Orpheus and Eurydice, Phaeton, or Odin and the Norse gods. Gustav Holst's The Planets, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, and Monteverdi's Orfeo all came to mind. But here is something one hears a little less often: Prometheus, The Poem of Fire. It is a symphonic poem composed by the Russian pianist Alexander Scriabin several years after he broke away from his Romantic days and embraced a more atonal, experimental style of music. It isn't for everyone, but I think its strangeness helps to capture the equal strangeness of ancient mythology: ethereal, ancient, mysterious, challenging, primordial.
Did the Ancient Greeks believe their myths?
“From Olympus he came forthwith…”
According to the myths of Ancient Greece there were Twelve Gods who lived on Mount Olympus: Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Aphrodite, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Dionysus. These were the “Olympian Gods”, the most important Greek deities, with shrines and temples all across the land. It was to these gods whom people prayed, and about whom they told myths, and to whom they erected colossal statues built from ivory and gold. I shall let Hesiod, who lived in the 8th century BC and whose poems about the gods were authoritative for centuries afterwards, paint a brief portrait of this mythology for you:
There were other stories they told of the gods, not merely attributing to them the elemental forces of the universe, but of their specific deeds and their relationships with one another. Zeus led the younger gods in revolting against the older gods, known as the Titans, overthrowing his father Cronos in the process and proclaiming himself their new king. This divine struggle was called the Titanomachy, and after ten years of fighting the victorious Olympians banished these Titans to be forever imprisoned in Tartarus.
Another tells how Zeus fell in love with a mortal woman called Alcmene, Queen of Tyrins, and how by him she gave birth to Heracles – or, for the Romans, Hercules. According to one story the infant Hercules was so strong that when he was being breastfed by the goddess Hera – Zeus’ wife, who had been tricked into raising him – he suckled so hard that she cast him off, her milk scattering across the heavens, thus creating the Milky Way.
A strange story, though far from the strangest. But here’s the rub of it. Mount Olympus is real mountain in northern Greece, about fifty miles southwest of the city of Thessalonica. It is over three thousand metres tall and, therefore, the tallest mountain in the whole country:
So, if the Ancient Greeks believed their gods were real, and that they lived on Mount Olympus, why didn’t they look for them? Well, among the pinnacles and ravines of Olympus we have found the remains of temples to Zeus and Apollo, along with shards of pottery and bronze coins dating to 200 BC – five hundred years after Hesiod composed his poems. So Greeks did go to Mount Olympus, found no gods there, and yet continued to worship them. What sort of belief did these people have, then?
More Praiseworthy than Credible
Asking “did the Ancient Greeks believe their myths?” turns out to be the wrong question. A much better way of asking it would be: in what way did Ancient Greeks believe their myths? See, there was a longstanding debate among Ancient Greek historians (and those of Rome as well) about whether they should include “mythological history” in their books. Take Livy, who began his great history of Rome with a sharp retelling of the myth of Romulus and Remus, the orphaned twins suckled by a wolf. He recognised that these legends were worth preserving even if not literally true. For, as he wrote:
Thucydides disagreed. He wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War, which took place from 431 to 404 BC among the city states of Greece. On one side was the Delian League, led by Athens, and on the other the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. Thucydides did not mention the gods in his historical account, nor invoke their meddling in human affairs, nor the consequences of omens taken before battle, as soothsayers looked to the skies for celestial messaging, nor to reports of stones falling from the sky or statues sweating blood, which populate the “historical” accounts of so many other ancient writers. Suetonius, for example, who wrote biographies of the first twelve Roman emperors, was quite happy to attribute historical facts to the whims of the gods.
Thucydides did not think mythology was appropriate in a history of the affairs and actions of humankind. He was concerned exclusively with the geopolitical machinations of cities, kings, and democratic assemblies, along with the strategies of military leaders, in a real war which he had experienced firsthand. So, did Thucydides not believe in Zeus and Hercules? We cannot say for sure, but he was a historian very much in the mould of his 21st century descendants, ascribing nothing to divine favour or retribution, and only to the politics and dissimulations of humankind. He was not alone in this. Plenty of other Ancient Greeks wrote about myths in a way which made very clear that they considered them little more than fiction. Heraclitus, a philosopher-poet from the city of Ephesus who lived in the 6th century BC, before Socrates or Plato, and whose work has only survived in tantalising fragments, once wrote:
Xenophanes of Colophon, another philosopher-poet of the 6th century, was openly critical of the mythology and religion of his fellow Greeks – or, at least, as it was systemised by the likes of Hesiod and Homer. He satirised them by pointing out that Ethiopians thought of their gods as black and the Thracians of their gods as white, and that if horses had gods they would probably look like horses:
And not to forget our old friend Lucretius (and his fellow Epicureans!) who wrote in the 1st century BC, as part of his monumental On the Nature of Things:
The Honest Faith of Desolation
We have established that: i) many Ancient Greeks did not believe that Zeus actually lived on Mount Olympus and continued to worship him anyway, and ii) there were people who did not believe in the gods at all. So now we approach the most important question: did anybody believe the gods to literally live on Mount Olympus?
Let us try to imagine ourselves as Ancient Greeks for a moment – or indeed any of our ancient ancestors, whether in the mountain valleys of the Usumacinta River, the rolling plains of the Great Steppe, the snow-laden woods of Scandinavia, or the roving red rocks of the Outback – and see if we can understand what “literal belief” was like. Let us go even further back, long before the rise of cities, long before we had thrown up temples of marble and decorated our shrines with porphyry and gold.
Imagine yourself as the lonely forager on some forsaken plain, far from friend or foe, in total solitude among the escarpments of granite and heavy black shadows of the forest. Hungry, tired, lost, and utterly alone. We can go camping in the wild and experience such solitude – but we have already known the brightness of electric lights, along with the internet and flushing toilets and central heating and aeroplanes. This forager has no such experience. The world they see on the lonely plain is the world as they have always known it. And there, desolate and starving to death, why would they not have comprehended the motion of some higher and greater being in the thunder and the lightning? Once upon a time there were evils so despotic that they could only have been the result of celestial wrath – the sudden plague, the slow rotting of the crops, the swarm of festering insects, the liquid fire raining down from an exploded mountain – and blessings so bounteous that they could only have been the consequence of divine munificence – the stream of fresh water after days of parched lips in the blasted rocks of an arid plateau, or the ripening of the fruit after months of ceaseless toil and hungered wandering.
Our lives now, for many in the world and – thankfully – more every day, are defined by a sort of material comfort and prosperity even our recent ancestors could not have imagined, nor even dared dream. We have everything we could have ever wanted, and hundreds of millions of years of evolution have suddenly become half-redundant. These peculiar machines that are our bodies, hard-wired to deal with destitution and frugality, have been overwhelmed by surfeit. Once we feared – now we only think we are scared. Once we rejoiced – now we only think we are happy. Once we suffered – and now we only think we know pain. Once we knew solitude – now we experience but loneliness.
Whatever joys we are able experience, of a pay rise or a public holiday or an early retirement – how could they possibly compare with the joy of such a forager who has endured a winter of famish and frost-bite, who suddenly sees the buds upon the olive branch and knows that spring has come at last? Our vitality has been sapped by the miracles of the modern world, and those parts of us which are oldest – millions of years old – cannot be engaged by a “comfortable” life. Would you not, dear Reader, have believed in Helios riding his blazing chariot across the skies, and in Odin raging among the storm clouds of winter, when every night a pure darkness descended upon you, illuminated only by the flickering light of a torch or inconstant glow of the moon, or the blaze of a burning forest or the inferno of an erupting volcano, when the so-longed-for brightness of each day was followed by a darkness you did not know how to penetrate, which you did not understand, which brought with it a mortal fear, and for whose end you could only pray? Or in Citlalatonac with all the stars and galaxies of the Milky Way arrayed as jewels brighter and richer than gold or sapphire across the black curtain of sky unfurling above you? As Lucretius said:
Would you not then, dear Reader, have believed in the Olympian Gods? We can hardly conceive such a purity of faith, nor such a simple, honest, and literal belief in the existence of a mighty goddess upon the summit and a vengeful god in the depths below. And until we can comprehend a world as vital and urgent as that, until we can know how it feels to look upon clear skies and measure our days by the rotations of the firmament, and drink from our hands the unpolluted water of a mountain stream and know nothing of infrared radiation or digital information or motor vehicles or plastic… until we know such things we cannot say those Ancient Greeks were wrong to believe literally in the Olympian Gods, and nor can we say they were right, for we simply cannot understand them at all or the world in which they lived and which we have long left behind. And so we must always reserve the possibility that mythology arose at a time when people lived by systems of logic and thought and belief to which we are simply not accustomed and which we shall quite literally never be able to understand. Just as the fourth-dimension is a mystery to those of us who live in a three-dimensional world, and the colour red is impossible to define for a person who has never seen it, perhaps mythology shall remain, now that the age of its creation has ceased to exist, eternally mysterious to we modern humans.
And yet… if you go to the Church of Sveta Nedelya in Sofia (but one of many examples from around the world, of course!) there you shall find people of an earnest faith, walking without fear through the gloom of the narthex and into a candlelit cavern where the grave and golden faces of icons glitter through the shadows thickly gathered below the pendentives and semi-domes, where they bow before the solemn face of a six hundred year old Mary enclosed in silver and glass, and whisper prayers to her, and cross themselves again and again, and kiss the glass, and light candles for the living and the dead, and crossing themselves one last time leave the twilight of the old church and enter the bright streets of the city, pulling out their mobile phones and going back to work.
Why should the faith of the Ancient Greeks – or Egyptians, Mesopotamians, or Aztecs – have been any different? When a person believes something simply and honestly they have no need to wonder whether their gods “really” live on Mount Olympus, or to wonder about the ontological and teleological implications of one or more divine creators. To know that it is so – this is enough. And quibbling questions will only be met with the same sort of puzzled look you might get today if you were to ask: does the United States of America actually exist? or is the sky really blue? In both cases the answer that would be given without hesitation by ninety nine percent of the world’s population is, “yes, obviously!”
But now ask yourselves this: do you believe in the Theory of Evolution? No, you might say, this is not a matter of belief but of truth. One does not “believe” a fact – one simply knows it. Well, that is much the same sort of answer we would expect to receive from an Ancient Greek shepherd when queried about the presence of Zeus on Mount Olympus. Have you studied the fossil record for yourself? No. You have taken as true what scientists tell you to be so, and feel no need to make any further enquiries yourself. What about the Big Bang? Do you believe it actually happened? Yes, you say. Why, I ask? Because competent scientists have told us that it did, as a matter of fact, happen. But the theory is less than one hundred years old. It was invented in 1931 by a Belgian priest and at the time amounted a radical revolt against established scientific consensus. The Big Bang Theory has since been modified and adapted and corrected since 1931, and is even at this very moment undergoing new challenges. So which specific version of the Big Bang Theory do you believe in? And, if a scientist discovers tomorrow that it didn’t actually happen, will you simply change what you believe to be true? This being the case, how does your literal belief in the Big Bang differ from the honest belief of an Ancient Greek in the sun-god Helios?
And so if we should laugh at our ancestors and call them ignorant then we are making a rod for our own backs. For we would be very arrogant to think that in three thousand years our descendants will think any differently of us, and that they won’t call our science superstition, and our rational deductions the mere blind faith of ignorance. In saying all this, dear Reader, I am not trying to convince you that ancient mythology and science are comparable world-views or methods of understanding the universe. They are clearly not the same, for they have produced very different results. My point is that we are not necessarily any more rational than our ancestors, and that even if mythology and science are fundamentally different things, the way in which most of us believe them might be the same – literally and honestly. Let us not think ourselves wiser nor more enlightened than we really are.
A Unified Theory of Mythology?
The word “mythology” is really a troublesome one, because it gives the impression that all these different things we call myths have some fundamental characteristics in common, and that if we just find the right way of looking at them then they will all make sense. But this is not the case. And so we must caution ourselves against thinking that all myths are necessarily connected with some sort of primordial, cosmogenic truth or the mere personification of natural phenomena like storms or earthquakes. Some myths do seem to attempt to explain the origins of the world and the way it works, while others seem to offer an explanation for why we behave in particular ways. Yet more justify the existence of some social hierarchy or rule, and others apparently attempt to pass on important truths about human nature.
But then we must reckon with the fact that all these myths evolved and changed with time, sometimes maintaining the same basic theme but, at other points, becoming so massively embellished that they depart from their original purpose and simply become complex stories with intrinsically interesting narrative qualities, regardless of what they are or are not about. We mentioned previously a hypothetical wanderer on the plain who looked up at the sun and conceived of a god called Helios driving his golden chariot across the sky. From this simple personification the Greeks then progressed to naming him a child of two Titans. His father Hyperion, was also a god of the sun, described by John Keats as:
And Helios’ mother was Theia, goddess of sight and vision, of whom Pindar sang:
Helios also had two siblings – Eos (dawn) and Selene (the Moon) – and many children. One of his daughters, Pasiphaë, would mate with the Cretan Bull and give birth to the Minotaur, eventually to be slain by Theseus. Another of his daughters was the enchantress Circe, who held Odysseus captive on her island for a year. Helios, by an ocean nymph, also had a mortal son called Phaeton, who sought out his father and asked to drive his chariot. Helios refused, because only he could control the horses, but Phaeton insisted and his father relented. The boy took the reins but quickly lost control of the chariot, so that the sun drew too close to the earth, burning it. Zeus resolved the situation by striking down Phaeton with a lightning bolt; Phaeton fell to the ground, where his sisters the Heliades mourned over his dead body for months until they were turned into poplar trees and their tears into amber. This is no longer mere personification of natural phenomena, and all these additional details, narrative twists, and complex family trees simply refuse to be interpreted as a story with one singular, coherent purpose or message.
So, what is mythology? Various experts have attributed myths entirely to the inner workings of the human mind; think of psychologists like Carl Jung. Others have described it as the direct consequence of ritual. Yet more have explained mythology as a sort of primitive science, and an attempt to understand the world before the invention of deductive reasoning and rigorous systems of logic. Some have considered it a form of pre-modern mass communication. Before we could write or broadcast we had to create stories to preserve and pass on facts and truths and important lessons. The truth is that none of them are either entirely right nor wholly wrong – mythology is all of these things, and much more.
If this sounds rather vague... that is the point. It would be ridiculous to try and create a unified theory of mythology. Let me put it this way. What word, do you think, could be used to apply in the 21st century to all the different things that we consume and believe in? There isn’t one. So let us try and be a little more specific: what do you use the internet for? You watch films and television shows, you go on social media and talk to your friends or upload photographs – or look at photographs uploaded by other people. You watch silly videos of strange and wonderful things, whether cats reacting to cucumbers or high-definition footage of the Himalayas. You research information, though that itself ranges from looking up the phone number for your dentist to reading about the etymology of the word palimpsest. You hold video calls, for work or with your friends. All of this – and much more. So… what is the internet for? Everything. But that isn’t a very useful or clearcut definition. And yet this sort of approach we must have in our minds when thinking about ancient mythology.
Even if we try to be yet more specific the picture hardly becomes any clearer. Let’s think about cinema, because people of the future may well look back at the 21st century and wonder whether we believed the Avengers were real, or whether Star Wars represented our prediction for the future. You presumably don’t think either of these things, and yet you have watched films involving these fictional worlds and characters – retelling their stories again and again, in slightly altered forms – more often than you can remember, not to mention the television shows and video games, the music and books, and the posters and artwork with which we have decorated our homes and belongings and even tattooed our bodies. Suddenly, from a distance, our very clearly stated explanation that this is a “media franchise” becomes rather confusing. Sometimes you go to the cinema and watch a horror film, and you cannot sleep that night, and at other times you watch a comedy or rom-com which makes you laugh for a moment and forget your daily worries but which you instantly forget. What of a phenomenon like Les Misérables? Setting aside Victor Hugo’s masterful novel for a moment, the musical version has run for four decades in London’s West End for a grand total of nearly fifteen thousand performances, not to forget the 2012 film. People are uplifted and inspired by this musical, and usually leave in tears. It would be strange to believe that myths did not also encapsulate this range of effect and purpose and origin.
Is your belief in the Big Bang comparable to your enjoyment of superhero films? If not, then why should we think the Greeks “believed” in Perseus any more than a New Yorker believes in Spider Man? You might say that films are “mere entertainment”, but even if that is true for you then why shouldn’t it have also been true for the Ancient Greeks? There is plenty of evidence that what may have started as some attempt to personify the cosmos became, over the centuries, a story with so much additional material and detail that it was clearly the result of brilliant storytellers crafting compelling and interesting narratives which, undoubtedly, entertained those who heard and eventually read them.
And, if our favourite films are more than mere entertainment, can you say exactly what they are? When you watch Batman on screen you know he is not literally real, but if these stories do have some meaning to you, such that they are not simply entertainment, on what level does it exist in your view of the world? Is it art? Maybe myths were the same thing! There have been seventeen major films about Batman, most of them with different actors playing out slightly or wildly different variations of the same stories – to say nothing of the broader franchise. If you can somehow reconcile in your head the existence of all these different iterations of Batman, possibly even having a favourite interpretation while recognising that none of them is “correct” version, and accept that some of them are merely entertaining and others are something more, such that they stay with you and you even quote them in real life, then you can also begin to understand that for the Ancient Greeks mythology was a similar concoction of variation and underlying thematic unison, of mere entertainment and meaningful, even truthful, story.
So perhaps we are wrong to think of ourselves as any different from our ancient ancestors. Their “mythology”, which ranged from fundamental beliefs about the nature of the universe to simple and amusing tales, may be no different to our conception of whatever it is that includes everything from science to art to entertainment to mere content.
There are other similarities between the Age of Mythology and the 21st century. It isn’t hard to imagine how a real man, though surely an extraordinary one, could have become Hercules. Just think of the reverence with which modern footballers are treated. The late, great Diego Maradona has streets and stadiums and children named after him all over the world. People and museums own shirts and boots that he wore and treat them like relics. This is more akin to sainthood than mythologisation, but the whole process is not dissimilar. Imagine a great warrior of five thousand years ago who went about doing remarkable deeds and leaving behind him a trail of death, life, destruction, and awe. Within a few years the stories of his life have spread far and wide, and within a generation or two they might have been expanded into the realms of the fantastical, accompanied even by worship.
The difference is that we have direct and incontrovertible evidence of who Diego Maradona was, what he looked like, and all the many details of his extraordinary life. This is, in some sense, a limiting factor on his mythologisation. Even if we were to twist the truth and exaggerate the things he did – which has already happened, of course – there is always a video of him playing football to prevent us from straying too far. Not so with Hercules, if there really was some specific man to which his legend might be traced (which there might not be, of course!) When the only way of passing down information was through word of mouth or in sculpture, you can see how the “facts” of his hypothetical life might soon transform into something rather more mythological. Some ancient writers believed this. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who lived in the Roman Empire, argued that the Titan Hyperion, father of Helios, was really just the mythologised version of an ancient man who had been the very first astronomer:
It needn’t only be historical individuals who were transformed into mythological heroes – events, too, can be transmuted in this way. What if I were to tell you the story of divine wrath, and a great and devastating flood sent to destroy all of humanity, with the exception of one noble and honest man who is warned about the coming flood and advised to build a ship. He does so and takes his wife and children aboard the ship, along with one pair of all earth's animals, and survives the flood, so that humanity can start over again.
Do you recognise this myth? It is the story of Noah's Ark from the Old Testament, of course. Or not. In truth I was talking about the Greek myth of Deucalion, a son of Prometheus who with his family was the sole survivor of a flood sent by Zeus. Or it may have been that I was describing the story of Atrahasis (otherwise known as Ziusudra or Utnapishtim, depending on whether you read the Babylonian or Akkadian version) of ancient Sumerian legend — Mesopotamia is where both the Greek and Biblical flood myths originated. This is, first of all, a perfect example of how myths spread from one culture to another, often changing details like names and places but frequently maintaining the same basic structure and theme: in this case the wrath of one or more gods against humanity, manifested as punishment in the form of a devastating flood, and the message that only one truly pious man survived it. But where did the myth come from? Was it rooted in an historical event?
In the 1920s an archaeologist (and former mentor of Lawrence of Arabia) called Sir Leonard Woolley led an expedition to the Sumerian city of Ur. One of the most interesting things they discovered was not an artefact but a broad and deep layer of sand and mud separating two different eras of construction. This could only have been the result of a devastating flood, dated to around 2,900 BC, most likely caused by the River Euphrates bursting its banks. We cannot say with certainty that this is evidence of the Flood, but this discovery offered a clear explanation for both the origins and centrality of a Flood Myth in Mesopotamian mythology. A single, historical event which became, in time, the story of wrathful gods and a noble survivor who built a boat.
The obvious comparison here is actually something rather recent, for which endless documentation and record exists, and yet which has already taken on a place of near-mythical significance in our age: the Second World War. In Britain, for example, the fact that “we stood alone” against Nazi Germany, after continental Europe had been overwhelmed by fascism and before the USA became involved, is an essential part of national mythology. The development of the Atomic Bomb has also become an event of mythical significance – no wonder Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman's famous biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer is called American Prometheus. Christopher Nolan's recent film, regardless of its historical accuracy, will no doubt contribute to this process.
But the mythology of the Second World War has extended further than that. Most people – and fewer with every passing year – do not remember the Second World War. Just as the generations went by and the great flood that once destroyed Ur was elevated into a story of divine proportions, so too the Second World War has already started a process of transformation into the ultimate, mythical struggle between Pure Good and Pure Evil. If we bear this in mind then we shall begin to understand that “ancient mythology” is more familiar than we are usually prepared to admit.
And so, at the very least – or, rather, at the very most! – if we do not try to think about mythology as a single system of literally-held beliefs about the world, which every ancient person shared and clearly understood, or that everybody agreed about what myths were for and where they came from, then we shall begin to understand both mythology and our ancestors much better. For, seeing myths as not so dissimilar from everything which in the 21st century we lump under the unhelpful title of “content” or “entertainment”, these peculiar inherited stories of the sublime and the cosmogenic, of the fantastical and the inconsequential, of heroes and villains, allow us to peer into the otherwise impenetrable gloom of our most ancient history. And, upon finding the reflection in that mirror, to suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, see ourselves staring right back.
Question of the Week
Last week I unwittingly asked you two questions. One was this:
Does free will exist?
The answers to that question I shall roll over to next week — more time to email me your answers.
The other question (more of a request, I suppose) was about mondegreens, that delightful phenomenon whereby one mishears the lyrics of a song. Mine was hearing "don't be afraid to catch fish" instead of "don't be afraid to catch feels". I asked for yours, and they were brilliant:
And that's all
In this essay I hope you have found things useful and interesting, Gentle Readers. The usual seven short lessons shall return next week, and until then I wish you all well, whether you be bracing for Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere or shaking off Winter and welcoming Spring in the Southern. We end, as often we have before, with Lord Byron. For how else could we conclude than with his Prometheus?
Whatever the "real" meaning of the myth of Prometheus, Byron and the Romantics found their own: a symbol of human spirit, of resistance against overweening might and a reminder that we are all in part divine. The myth is also yours to make of it what you will. Go well, cheerio, au revoir, до скоро, ciao!
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