Life and the Mythology Within.
Recently, sitting on my bed together, Tuğçe (pronounced too-che) asked me “why is it so important for you?” Languorously, I asked her what she meant. We’d been silent for a while and I had lost our train of conversation. She pointed to the piece of thick cardboard with a painting from the Odyssey. The painting depicted three sirens, one with a fishtail bellow her waist, coming from the water and hanging on the side of a ship .
“That,” she said. After a pause, “mythology.”
I had just given her a copy of the Odyssey as a gift, and it was sitting on the bed stand. I was silent for a while. Nothing came to me. “I can tell you why I like that story. Do you know the story behind the picture? Well, the women there, the sirens, they sing so beautifully that they enchant sailors to crash their ships into the rocks” “I’ve heard this story somewhere.” She said. Many people know these stories without knowing that they know them. It’s part of the cultural DNA of the West. Of course, sitting on my bed, near the cliff edge of an extinct Nova Roma city, we’re not exactly on Western ground. We’re in Asia Minor. At the time of Homer this would have been Greek territory, but no longer. This is a place that has seen a lot of peoples and empires come and go, and I’ve been told that the snow capped mountain that I look at from the comfort of my balcony was the original Olympus.
This was gods’ country once.
“Well,” I continued, “do you know why Odysseus is tied to the mast? You can see that the oarsmen are wearing thick fabric on their ears to block the songs, but Odysseus wanted to hear their song. So, he had himself tied to the mast so that he wouldn’t jump into the sea. Hearing the song doesn’t help him in any noticeable way. There’s no part in the story where his having heard the song saves or assists him. He just did it for the experience, to become a more complete person.”
As she hadn’t yet read the book I decided not to tell her this, but there’s also a lesson in that story. The lesson is, I think, that we should all try to listen to the songs of the cosmos – and the seas are as much the outer space of the cosmos as they are the inner space of our psyches – but we have to anchor ourselves to something or else we risk become detached from the unfolding human drama that is our life. We have to walk a line that has us involved in both extremes, a wonderer of the heart and soul but a person of the proverbial neighborhood as well. We have to be masters of transient truth while trying to seek out and listen to eternal truth at the same time.
Is the point of life to be good and help others? Is the point of life to gain wisdom?Is the point of life to defeat the people who you find objectionable and who find you objectionable? Is the point of life to “dig infinity” as the good Lord Buckley said?
These are some of the eternal questions of life, and I find some of the answers by reading myths and legends. Tuğçe’s question would periodically come back to me. Why is mythology important for me? It reminded me the Bill Hicks line, “not ‘what am I reading,’ but ‘what am I reading for?’ Shit, you stumped me.” Days later coming back home from work, I was jogging up the flight of stairs to yet another cliff side and I remembered the lyrics “Who’s the man who stole fire for the people? Who causes tremblin’ in the bones of evil? Who carved a mountain into a cathedral?” I remembered Prometheus. I love and admire that character. I admire his defiance, his wisdom - and the shortsightedness that goes with it. Then I remembered Prometheus pinned to the mountainside and a line from Shelley’s play, Promethues Unbound:
See how kindred murder kin:
‘Tis the vintage-time for death and sin:
Blood, like new wine, bubbles within:
Till Despair smothers
The struggling world, which slaves and tyrants win.
The furies, sent by Zeus, had let him see the world that his fuel had forged. When Shelley wrote the poem he was speaking of a Europe burning at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and the disenchanting failure of the French Revolution. Today the furies could point to the remains of Chernobyl (where he has a statue dedicated to him), or the scything ethnic wars of Africa. What would he think of his sacrifice for us? But, I also happen to believe that Prometheus isn’t speared to the side of that rock anymore; that he’s been freed, perhaps by Heracles, perhaps with the blessing of Zeus, perhaps without it. There are two opposing stories that can coexist. He’s still there, and he isn’t. Greek mythology, and polytheism in general, doesn’t claim to have the absolute hold on truth that obsesses monotheistic doctrines. Perhaps that’s why someone like Democritus was able to imagine and publicly propose his proto-vision of the atomic theory, while Galileo was forced to recant his astronomically heretical beliefs at pain of public execution. Perhaps that’s why Europe sat in cultural and scientific darkness until the books of the Greek philosophers headed westward from a collapsing Constantinople. The return of Greek mythology and Greek philosophy brought to an end the spiritual monopoly of monotheism which had done such wonders as medicinal leeching, witch hunts, and a series of Crusades meant to liberate the “Holy Lands” and bring back an angry vengeful Jesus who would initiate the end of the world.
Greek mythology is a religion not created by the hierarchical priesthood, but by poets, musicians, and playwrights. It’s a religion of the artist. It’s a religion where one is free to invent new stories, and new ideas, even if they are in opposition to the old. If it’s well received it can go into the books, if not it’ll be forgotten and no bloodletting street violence required. Hellenistic mythology is an attempt to reveal or discover higher truths, not a claim to having the only truth there is. Also, Hellenistic mythology doesn’t claim to have a handle on good and evil. There is no purely good god or character. Everyone and everything is a mixture of positive and negative forces. This is, I believe, a very mature attitude toward the nature of the world and the universe. Evil isn’t externalized into the other. It’s far less definitive and divisive.
This leads to another point. No one is arguing that the Olympian gods literally lived on a palace on top of the mountain. If someone said that he’d be laughed at. That lets us be free to search for the meaning of the stories. I find that monotheism is not like that. Having been to Jerusalem I was a bit shocked by Christians trying to find the physical sites correlating with biblical stories. Don’t consider the meaning of Christ reattaching the severed ear of the Roman soldier, but rather worry about where he was supposed to have done so. Jesus literally walked on water. Few people contemplate the meaning of the message, but many try and find the location of the event. That sort of conduct has an air of absurdity to it. One can go see the Parthenon for the sake of its history and its architecture, but who is interested in the idea that Athena literally walked there? Perhaps one of the joys of mythology is that it’s not a branch of study visited by the common person anymore. Perhaps one of its redeeming qualities is that it’s free from the turbulence of the masses. The disinterest of the average person could a very wonderful boon. To paraphrase a Christian mystic, there is more freedom on the fringe. I’m free to think what I want about mythology in a way that members of monotheistic beliefs rarely, if ever, are. Mythology leaves on free to think, while as monotheistic religions typically leave one free to do little more than follow.
It has also occurred to me that, like the Old Testament, the artists who originated these myths also believed that human beings were created in the gods’ (God’s) images. We, being part of the universe, are an expression of it. The microcosm is the macrocosm, as Mr. Crowley said. The Greek gods are representative of parts of our inner psyches, with are in turn representative of the heavens. We are the gods, the gods are the heavens, the heavens are us. Describing the nature of humanity we describe the nature of the universe and vice versa.
The natural worlds connection with mythology came to me one night while I was smoking a cigarette out at sea on the USS Antietam. I had recently read the Metamorphoses for the 2nd time and I was letting the stories bubble up in my head. I remembered Narcissus and Echo, and then it occurred to me in a flash of eureka; Echo represents what we would call degenerative feedback, that is to say feedback the loses power with each rebound; while Narcissus represents what would be called regenerative feedback. Regenerative feedback is what you hear when a microphone screeches. The sound is amplified with each rebound. I was thinking of this in terms of electrical feedback, and the fact that our brains are a storm of electrical activity would seem to legitimize the metaphor. Again, by describing the psyche of man they are describing aspects of the physical universe.
A few years later a different kind of eureka effect occurred, this time while I was lying in the comfortable, warm water of a floatation tank. In the floatation tank I had entered one of the vivid dream states and found myself in a small classroom giving a lecture to children who sat in rows of desks. I was telling the children the story of Orpheus, the poet song writer. The day he was to be married a poisonous snake bit the ankle of Eurydice, his wife-to-be. Overcome with grief Orpheus set out to the underworld to try and win her back from underworld. He used his songs to charm his way into the throne room (office) of Hades himself. Seated next to Persephone Hades listened to the enveloping music of Orpheus who told of his love for Eurydice and his desire to have her back. Hades and Persephone were touched by his music and allowed him to take Eurydice with him out of the underworld and back into the land of the living. But, as with so many gifts from the gods, there was a catch. He could lead Eurydice out of the underworld but he could not look upon her until she had completely exited the land of the dead and was standing in the sunlight of the living world. He put his hand behind him and lead Eurydice out. Eventually they were climbing up a pile of boulders that lead out into the world. Having exited the land of the dead Orpheus looked back to give Eurydice his hand and help her, however while he was sun shine of the living, she was not. When he looked at her she disappeared.
At this point I explained to the children what I thought the story meant. This was an interpretation that I’d never considered before. “One of the meanings of this story could be the experience of mediation. When one is meditating he can pass through many interesting episodes, but during this time he must not allow himself to become aware of being aware. Should he become aware – that is to say, should he look upon Eurydice – the experience will end because he will have woken up from the dream state.”
There was a pause, and then one of the children said “Yes, Charlie. But you must remember not look at us, or else we’ll disappear like Eurydice” The tone that this child spoke with had a peculiar effect. He or she sounded very serious, and perhaps devious. It was as if I was being issued a warning. This made me look to see who exactly had said this. When I looked at the children they disappeared and I woke up like a balloon that had been held underwater, and splashed like a fish in the warm water.
Myths are not meant to simply be read, put down, and forgotten. They are meant to be ingested, contemplated, incorporated, and lived. This experience with Orpheus is one example of a myth lived. There are others that I won’t get into in this short essay, but perhaps in another.
Wrapped within the blanket of mythology is the psychology of man. The tides and forces of the psyche are given the names and attributes of the gods. In his excellent book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso writes “No psychology has ever gone beyond this; all we have done is invent, for those powers that act upon us, longer, more numerous, more awkward names, which are less effective less closely aligned to the pattern of our experience whether that be pleasure or terror.” These myths are about us, each of us. And we, in our own duplicated uniqueness will relate to, and be confronted with some myths more than others.
I’ll end by saying that my travels around the world, to roughly two dozen countries and numerous cultures, would not have been as rich and wonderful an experience if I hadn’t possessed an understanding of these myths and the myths and legends of other cultures and times. The truths inherent in the mythology of any people are treasures for us to use and enjoy. They are gifts from the universe that we walk in, come from, and are a part of. I hope that anyone reading this short essay will be inspired to go and research the subject of Hellenistic mythology, and mythology in general.
To gain an introduction to mythology I recommend reading the following books;
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes
The Odyssey and the Iliad by Homer.
To get a sense of how to interpret and read mythology I recommend;
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph W. Campbell
The Grail Legend by Emma Jung
If one has a general sense of mythology I would definitely recommend;
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso
I would also recommend the following films;
Jean Cocteau’s Orphee and it’s sequel.
Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora