In Ancient Greek, muthos simply meant a traditional story – and, to modern Greeks, a Mythos means the best beer in the country.
The Greek myths, then, are really the best stories ever told – and some of the earliest. As Virginia Woolf said in her 1925 essay “On Not Knowing Greek”, it is in Greek literature that you find the original human being. In the Greek myths, we meet humans and their stories before, in Woolf’s words, “their emotions have been worn into uniformity”.
Charlotte Higgins captures the raw, magical originality of the Greek myths in this beguiling book, charmingly illustrated by Chris Ofili. The chief culture writer at the Guardian and the author of Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, she knows her classics – and her myths – inside out.
Greek literature and the Greek myths begin with the Iliad and the Odyssey – composed by Homer, if there was such a single figure as Homer, in the eighth century BC, it’s thought. (Although Boris Johnson once told me he thought the two epics must have been written in the sixth century BC, so sophisticated is the use of Greek in them.)
Already in Homer, the cast of Greek gods and goddesses is pretty much complete, with all their various powers and terrible family arguments in place. If you want a good idea of how Greeks viewed the gods and the myths in the mid-fifth century BC, take a trip to the British Museum. In the Elgin Marbles, you’ll see the gods lounging around on Mount Olympus, looking exactly like humans but twice the size. Phidias, the sculptor, came up with a brilliant wheeze to fit the gods into the same strip of marble as humans – the huge gods sit down while the diminutive humans stand up.
As Higgins writes: “The Romans inherited the story-world of the Greeks’ myths, absorbing and expanding it with their own distinctively flavoured narratives.” Later on in the Graeco-Roman period, handbooks of myths survive, as writers tried to encapsulate and define the myths. But the myths defy precise definition, partly because so much of their origin is lost in time. Homer’s works were only part of an epic cycle, much of it lost, that included long poems about the big chunks of the Trojan War that don’t appear in the Iliad.
The other thing about the myths is that they are protean – constantly changeable, like Proteus, the Greek sea god of elusive sea change, who constantly changes shape.
That means Higgins is quite within her rights to choose female characters over male ones for the meat of this book. Her stars are Athene, Alcithoe, Philomela, Arachne, Andromache, Helen, Circe and Penelope. In a clever device, as these women tell their stories, the backdrop of Greek myth is also revealed: from the world coming into being to the birth of the gods on Olympus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Trojan War, the Odyssey and the appalling, blood-soaked fallout of Agamemnon’s return to Mycenae.
Be warned: the family tree of the Greek gods and goddesses puts Burke’s Peerage to shame in its complications. I once walked through a park in Salzburg where a Greek-myth addict had illustrated that family tree– it was 200 feet long and five feet high.
But, by selecting highlights of the Greek myths, Higgins avoids the tragicomic fate of the Rev Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, who never completes his never-ending book, The Key to All Mythologies.
Unlike Casaubon, the ultimate procrastinator, Higgins is brilliant at the shortcut to the eternal beauties of the Greek myths. She has absorbed all the stories and reproduces and connects them in a compulsive narrative.
For a moment, just as with Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek”, you get a glimpse inside the ancient Greek brain – and the Roman one. As Higgins says, the myths were everywhere for the Greeks and the Romans: on the pottery they ate and drank from; on the pediments of the temples; as the raw material of their songs and rituals.
I’ll be taking this book to Greece in September – God willing, and Grant Shapps keeping the country on the amber list. I shall reread it on the island of Marathonisi, off the Peloponnese, where Paris first made love to Helen of Troy after stealing her from her husband, Menelaus. And I might sip the odd Mythos at the same time.
Harry Mount is the editor of The Oldie.
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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