Saturday, February 26, 2011

Mythic History, Historic Myths

One of the strangest poets who lived while I was young was Robert Graves, known to some for the movies made of his Claudius novels, to some fewer for his poetry, to fewer yet who found themselves puzzled by his three-volume The Greek Myths, and the handful totally baffled by his The White Goddess. Here was a famous man whose title should have been Impenetrable the Obscure—because he undertook to understand the most ancient roots of Greek and Celtic culture to a dizzying depth where practically no one could descend to follow him, observe what he was doing, and approve or critically correct. Not a way to achieve academic renown—hence Graves was gravely ignored.

I find his reading of the Greek myths fascinating, particularly his conviction that they were originally history, if entertainingly framed, embodying not only facts but also, later, artful revision of the same facts, the addition of spins and interpretation of these revisions as politics, power, and cultures changed, e.g., a matriarchal dispensation morphing into a patriarchal age; alternatively Graves held that some of these very old stories were simply invented by weaving a meaning around even more ancient frescoes or mosaics the original meaning of which had been lost.

Someday I might attempt to render the whole horrific twentieth century into a Greek-style myth of three or four action-packed pages simply titled Adolf and the Torch Nymph. By a reversal of Graves’ method (if I still had the years left to do it) I could write the story of Cain and Able as a ten-volume work tracing the prehistoric conflict between the first practitioners of agriculture in conflict with the then dominant herding culture.


  1. I read Graves on myths a long time ago, and I found it interesting. His approach treats Myths as myths, that is to say, he approaches them as stories and narratives and his interpretations - although possibly doubtful for the ancients - are spot on for modern man.

    Treating them as dead objects of scientific inquiry is akin to the study of dead and mounted butterflies.

    As I read Graves, I wondered at the change from matriarchy to patriarchy... I concluded that the men took the power from the women by the simple expedient of declaring themselves willing to commit suicide - one at a time - until the women transferred power.
    The men commenced a series of these self-immolations until the mothers could not bear to see their children die anymore.

    Thus... patriarchy. It may not be true, but it sums up the ethos of at least the good old 20th century.

  2. An amusing, novel take on the roots of patriarchy, Montag! I find the patriarchal view of reality factually wrong, metaphysically absurd, and its religious formulations laughable. If I die and discover I was wrong, I'll go to hell willingly and singing. But I expect, instead, something quite different... For all of his obscurity, Graves is whole lot more fun than most other books you can pick up for a day's perusal.

  3. To respond to the first comment, above, let me cite one woman's unwillingness to transfer at least one type of power over men: Lysistrata and her comrades during the endless Wars between Athens and Sparta marched...

    Even well-read men seem to have forgot this stalwart lady.