The Ancient Greek Myths Retold

From The Wall Street Journal:

Whatever the ferment of contemporary literary culture, the myths and legends of ancient Greece continue to be a rich source of story and reference. In our censorious era, there is something wonderfully unkillable about the old gods and heroes. If anything, our attachment to the Greeks is becoming more intense, judging from the appearance of a tranche of fine new (and new-ish) retellings of old, old stories.

This rewriting business is almost as old a tale as those of Orpheus and Eurydice, Echo and Narcissus, and the doomed men and women of the grisly House of Atreus. The poets and playwrights and artisans of antiquity used and reshaped elements of these thrilling narratives, along with other stories of creation, transformation and divine retribution—and thank goodness for it. Without all their riffing, some of which has survived only in fragmentary form, we wouldn’t know as much as we do about, say, Hercules (aka Heracles or Herakles), the demigod whose strength and feats come to us from, among others, Homer, Hesiod, Apollodorus and Euripides. We also owe a debt of gratitude to 20th-century classicists who kept the connection alive, not least Edith Hamilton, whose magisterial “Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes” recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.

And here we are, with the cornucopia tipping out again! Sarah Iles Johnston brings exceptional verve and scholarship to “Gods and Mortals: Ancient Greek Myths for Modern Readers,” a comprehensive volume that is illustrated with harsh and jagged pictures by the author’s son, Tristan Johnston. Ms. Johnston, a professor of classics at Ohio State University, restores the lustiness of tales that other writers have made bloodless. Readers acquainted with the Big Bang theory, for instance, may be a little startled by how literal that concept was to the Greeks. Their cosmos emerges, in this reading, from vigorous sex between Earth and Sky that ends when Earth conspires with her son Kronos to castrate the priapic father in flagrante delicto.

Indeed, sexual desire drives the action throughout Greek mythology. Zeus is forever seducing mortal women (Io, Europa, Semele), and his wife Hera is forever persecuting these unfortunates. But sexual frigidity exacts costs too, as when the chaste goddess Artemis punishes poor Actaeon when he sees her bathing. Transformed into a stag, the young man is run down and torn to pieces by his own faithful hunting dogs. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” Shakespeare writes. “They kill us for their sport.” There is little in these stories to contradict him.

The textual fidelity of “Gods and Mortals” means that armchair enthusiasts may find some surprises. In Ms. Johnston’s description of Midas, for instance, there is no little daughter whom the greedy king turns to gold; that detail, we learn from the author’s fascinating source notes, comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version of the myth in his 1851 “Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys.” Ms. Johnston has shaped her stories in obedience to the oldest narratives, but she does take the welcome liberty of slipping in descriptions of cultural norms and domestic practices to enrich the reader’s knowledge. We read that, in keeping house, one ill-starred woman “used jars made of clay to stockpile grain, olive oil and other food. By sinking the jars partway into the cool earth of her pantry floor, she was able to keep their contents fresh for a long time.”

In “Arcadian Days: Gods, Women, and Men From Greek Myths,” John Spurling retells the single and shared stories of five pairs of males and females: the titan Prometheus and the god-fashioned Pandora; the hero Jason and the sorceress Medea; the doomed king Oedipus and his daughter Antigone; the warrior Achilles and his mother, the sea nymph Thetis; and the wily Odysseus and his clever wife Penelope.

Mr. Spurling, an octogenarian English author and playwright, has adjusted certain things to his taste (presenting the baddie Creon, he concedes, “in a somewhat kinder light than Sophocles”). He has also introduced substantial passages of dialogue, a narrative choice that robs some moments of grandeur (Zeus at one point complains that people are “getting up my nose”) but that has the effect, in others, of adding slow-building dread and pathos.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal