Alive in Myth

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

by Roberto Calasso, translated by Tim Parks
Knopf, 403 pp., $25.00

Roberto Calasso
Roberto Calasso; drawing by David Levine

The gods of ancient Greece are dead, but the myths will not lie down. The peculiar quality which marks them off from the other mythologies of the world is their concentration on human beings of a definite period of the mythical past: the heroes and heroines. Closer to the gods than we can be, descendants in fact of sexual unions between gods and mortals, they were also brighter, more beautiful, more clearly visible and intelligible in their brilliant outlines; the limits of human aspiration and fragility are marked out luminously by their aspirations, loves, and disasters. That intoxicating combination has given them a power over the Western imagination which in one way or another appears in creative artists as varied as Botticelli, Titian, Monteverdi, Marlowe, Gluck, Keats, Hölderlin, Tennyson, Joyce. They also have inspired many systematic treatments which resemble creative writing: Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes (chivalrous gestes), Robert Graves’s Greek Myths (avatars of the White Goddess), Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough (ritual of the dying god).

The Italian writer Roberto Calasso is in that tradition. His extraordinary book is the work of an amateur—in the best sense—not a professional scholar. It draws on the whole range of classical literature, and it has six hundred footnotes giving the ancient sources, mostly of course poets, beginning with Homer and Hesiod, from whom his versions of the myths are drawn. Modern scholarship is on the whole ignored. That means that there is no mention of the connections, spectacularly worked out by Walter Burkert, between Greek myth and the sacred stories of the ancient Near East; no discussion of the Indo-European inheritance which underlies it, about which the school of Georges Dumézil has done so much; no mention, even, of the fact that half a millennium before Homer the Linear B tablets, Greek documents of the second half of the second millennium BC, record most of the names of the gods who are familiar to us, but omit some and include others whom later Greeks had forgotten—Dopota, Manasa, “Drimios the son of Zeus.” Greek myth of the classical period had behind it a long and complex history. But for that you must go to the professionals.

Calasso’s book is something different: an exposition and explanation of Greek myth from within its own world. He enters into that world and writes as a creative mythographer, learned but also daring. He also gives an interpretation of Greek culture in mythical terms. He describes, with energy and a kind of love, the mythical creation of the world, the monstrous creatures who preceded the Olympian gods: fabulous serpents; a cosmic egg; Protogonos the First-Born, with four eyes, four horns, golden wings, three animal heads, and two sexes. Finally Zeus becomes supreme. Monstrous deities give place to the transfigured humanity of Olympus.

Most of the book is concerned with that last period, the rule of the world by gods characterized…

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