From The Paris Review:
My first exposure to Greek mythology was at the Lyceum—not the famed Lykeion in Athens, where Aristotle and his pupils strolled around as they discussed philosophy and beauty, but a movie theater on Fulton Road in Cleveland, where my brothers and I spent Saturday afternoons. The Lyceum was classic as opposed to classical: popcorn in red-and-white striped boxes, a stern lady usher who confiscated the candy we snuck in from outside, buzzers under the seats for a gimmicky thrill.
Every week, the Lyceum showed a double feature, usually a horror movie—The Mummy, Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon—paired with something mildly pornographic (and highly educational). At one Saturday matinee, I laid eyes for the first time on the Cyclops. The movie was Ulysses (1955), starring Kirk Douglas as the man of many turnings. In a way, it, too, was a horror movie, full of monsters and apparitions: a witch who turned men into pigs, sea serpents, Anthony Quinn in a short tight skirt.
Ulysses is the Latinate name for Odysseus and the one preferred by Hollywood and James Joyce. How Odysseus became Ulysses is, like many things that happened between Greece and Rome, impossible to say for sure. Scholars have suggested that the “D,” or delta, of Odysseus in Ionic Greek was originally an “L,” or lambda, in the Dorian and Aeolic dialects. Delta (Δ) and lambda (Λ) are similar in form—a wedge with or without a bar—but to my knowledge no one has suggested that Odysseus was the ancient equivalent of a typo for Ulysses. The name may have reached Rome independently as Ulixes through Sicily, the traditional home of the Cyclops.
In Catania, a city under Mount Etna built largely of polished black lava, souvenir shops sell ceramic figurines of the Cyclops. Cyclopes (plural) were a race of giants, similar to the Titans, clumsy prototypes for human beings. Polyphemus worked on Mount Etna, forging lightning bolts for Zeus.
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Athena must have appeared in the movie—what is the Odyssey without Athena? She is the protector of Ulysses; he would not survive without her. Surely the hero invokes her—I must have heard her name. But I don’t recall meeting Homer’s gray-eyed at the Lyceum. No tomes of mythology by Bulfinch, the d’Aulaires, or Edith Hamilton sat on the bookshelves in our house—in fact, there were no bookshelves in our house. But we had comic books and library cards, and I subsisted happily on the Brothers Grimm and Little Lulu. I did not, like a prodigy, read the Iliad in translation at fourteen. I had a weakness for the genre of the girl detective, for Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I also liked Poe and Dickens and Mark Twain and tried to read Hawthorne (yawn) and Sir Walter Scott (snore) and Dostoyevsky (coma). Anything I learned about Greek mythology was either absorbed through popular culture or through writers in English. In junior year at Lourdes Academy, the all-girls Catholic high school I attended in Cleveland, we read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the lesson of which, according to Sister Diane Branski, was that though Joyce had lost his faith (and left Ireland), he could never get away from the Church (or Dublin). And neither would we.
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Once, for sixth-grade religion class, we were split into groups for a project on vocations. The nun handed out pamphlets describing what could be expected from each calling: you got married, you became a priest or a nun, or you remained single. I was put on the “single” panel. Remaining single did not feel like a choice—it was something you got stuck with, like the unmated card in a game of Old Maid. But the pamphlet pointed out that although you might not choose it, if you were to die tomorrow—tragically, at age twelve—you would perforce be single. The only model the Church offered a girl was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I suppose Athena became a model to me without my even realizing it: a third way. Athena, like Mary, is a virgin—parthéna—but she does not carry the paradoxical burden of maternity. She was born, fully formed and armed for battle, a warrior, from the head of Zeus. Her mother, by most accounts, was Metis, one of the Titans, rivals of the Olympians, meaning that Athena came from old stock. Because Metis wasn’t around (I am sorry to report that Zeus swallowed her while she was pregnant), Athena had none of the conflicts a girl has with her mother. She gets along well with Zeus’s wife, Hera, that most irritable of goddesses. Zeus never pressures her to marry.
Other women and girls may favor a different goddess. Many opt for Artemis, the huntress; someone who longs for children might identify with Demeter; great beauties are chosen by Aphrodite. Hera is not popular; in her Roman guise as Juno she is statuesque and confident, but what a bitch. For me, it had to be Athena. Whereas the Virgin Mary is a model of humility and servitude, Athena is the template for a liberated woman.
Athena is unfettered: she has no masculine deity to accommodate, no children to appease, no family obligations to juggle with her career. She is beholden to no one—Zeus treats her with respect and indulgence. Like a favorite daughter, she knows how to handle him. He trusts her judgment and lets her have her way. Her virginity may be one of the reasons Athenians chose her to be the patron of their city: she would be dedicated. Thee founding myth of Athens is that Athena and Poseidon were rivals for top honors in the city. Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis, and Poseidon caused salt water to spring up on its slopes. The gods judged the olive the greater gift and awarded the city to Athena.
Link to the rest at The Paris Review
PG attended very small rural public schools. He was fortunate, particularly in elementary school, to have wonderful teachers.
However, the books and stories he read about students in Catholic schools made those institutions sound far different than his own schools. In many such accounts, the teaching nuns were often depicted as intimidating and strict.
He remembers wondering how his education would be different with teachers like that instead of warm and grandmotherly Edna Lascelles (grades 1-3) and intense and exciting Betsy Smith (grades 4-6).
If you’re wondering what “very small rural public schools” means, from grades 1-3, PG’s classmates were Andy, Danny, Jim, Ernest, Sandy and Sandy Lee (last names withheld for privacy reasons).
From grades 4-6, classmates were more transient. PG was never the only student in his grade, but there were never more than two other students. Betsy gave him different (and harder) assignments than she gave the other students.