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 by beauty and by sexual desire. In pedantic fact, many of the myths had origins which had nothing to do with love; but with the passing of time they came increasingly to be seen as a great repertoire of erotic tales, tales of lustful pursuit, flight, rape, and the transformation of lovers, beloveds, and offspring into all the features of the world—animals, birds, flowers, trees, fountains. In that world Calasso is at home, and his book is in part a modern version of the Metamorphoses of Ovid. But it is also in part an imaginative history and recreation of the nature of animal sacrifice and the origins of eating and of guilt, the beginning of totalitarianism in Sparta, the mythical way of seeing the world, and the nature of contact between human creatures and the divine: how we once possessed it, and how we lost it.

It plunges at once into the middle of things:

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover’s coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa. Then the white beast dived into the sea, his majestic body rising just far enough above the water to keep the girl from getting wet….

Four hundred pages later the book ends almost where it began, with the wedding of Europa’s brother Cadmus to the goddess Harmony, the disasters brought by the gods on his daughters and their sons, and Cadmus’ own exile, in which he meditates on his original coming from Asia to Greece, in search of his abducted sister.

Calasso begins at the same point as the first European historian, Herodotus. The name of Europe is that of an abducted girl; the alphabet was brought to the West by her brother in vain quest of her. And the abduction of Europa, as Herodotus tells us and Calasso follows with gusto, was a link in a chain of reciprocal abductions of princesses, Europe and the Orient alternately avenging rape with rape. First Io, beloved of Zeus, was driven eastward in the form of a cow by the jealous Hera, then Europa, beloved of Zeus, was carried westward on the back of a bull. Then men take a hand, imitating the ways of gods with other mortals, and Medea is stolen by Jason from the East, and Helen by Paris from the West. After that, says Herodotus, the Trojan War caused enmity between West and East, and so in the fullness of time the great kings of Persia, King Darius and King Xerxes, invaded Greece with all the countless hordes of the Levant. And now we are in the daylight of history. Myth leads to history and explains it; and history begins with the violent erotic onslaught of the gods on mortal women.


The Greeks remembered that there was a time when men and gods feasted together. That closeness fitted with the momentous decision of the deities of Olympus, their great innovation in the history of the world, as Calasso puts it, to aim, not at power, but at perfection. This decision becomes central to his own personal meditation on the myths. The gods were very close to mortals and very like them, separated most vitally by the fact that mortals must eat, and so must destroy—the guilt of eating (deeper than that of eating meat rather than vegetables) marked us off from the radiant self-sufficiency of the Olympians. The Olympians gave up eating food and subsisted instead on ambrosia—“immortality”—and nectar—“conquest of death.” Their perfection made itself perceptible to mortals as an aesthetic experience. The mortal heroes and heroines existed for a brief period of time, one marked by “the supremacy of the visible,” when the unseen powers of the world consented to fashion themselves according to the rules of the visible, so that the most anthropomorphic of gods resembled the most splendid of men.

But the shared meals of human and divine diners led, in the mortal world, to disasters. When the mortal Cadmus married the goddess Harmony, the gods gave her a necklace; its fatal splendor caused crimes and catastrophes, husbands betrayed, mothers murdered. When Peleus married the goddess Thetis, who was to bear him Achilles, the goddess Discord, left off the list of invitations, produced the golden apple “for the most beautiful,” which caused the Judgment of Paris and the Trojan War (and Achilles’ death). Tantalus, father of Pelops, lost his head when he had the privilege of dining with the gods, and served up to them the flesh of his own son. This began a long hereditary curse which worked its destructive way through the generations of his family, right down to the death of King Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and hers at those of her son.

So the gods turned away, and the connection between divine and human took another form, that of rape:

This is the sign of the overwhelming power of the divine, of the residual capacity of distant gods to invade mortal minds and bodies…. With the old convivial familiarity between god and man lost, with ceremonial contact through sacrifice impoverished, man’s soul was left exposed to a gusting violence, an amorous persecution, an obsessional goad….

The stories of abduction, rape, violent possession keep recurring with different names and different details. Not only does one heroine’s story resemble another’s, even to the suicides and metamorphoses; each myth has many forms.

Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this way they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture. But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo.

The novel, restricted to a single version, makes it more dense, more detailed—to compensate for its lost variants. Calasso might have observed that some modern novels, for example David Lodge’s Changing Places or Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, struggle to reclaim that openness, to regain indeterminacy; in the novel such antiquarianism is regarded as experimental, avant-garde. The reader is dizzied by the variants, just as “the mythographer lives in a permanent state of chronological vertigo.”

It is somehow in keeping with this that elsewhere in his book Calasso presents another set of mythical events, another portentous fall. This time, sexual union of gods and men came first:

Hierogamy: it was the first way the gods chose to communicate with men. The approach was an invasion, of body and mind, which were thus impregnated with the superabundance of the divine….

Why weren’t men able to go on with hierogamy?

They could not do so because of the crimes of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and gave it to man, and who also cheated the gods and established the ritual of animal sacrifice as the sole way of communicating with the gods. Men slaughtered animals and feasted on the meat; to the gods they offered burnt sacrifice, roasting on the altar the thigh-bones wrapped in fat. The reason for this strikingly uneven division was that Prometheus once upon a time succeeded in tricking Zeus into choosing a bundle containing the bones of a slaughtered animal, and the gods have received this ever since. It seems here like a different story from the one which Calasso has previously told. Was it the momentous trick of Prometheus, or was it the sin of the gods’ guests, which ended the shared meals?


And that, of course, is the point. Calasso is not a scholar but a mythographer. It suggests indeed a curious loss of nerve that in the six hundred or so footnotes which give the ancient sources for his myths—an array of some erudition—he refers to ten works of modern scholarship, quite eccentrically chosen. There is an immense mass of modern scholarly writing on myth, some of it very illuminating, and it would seem more rational to pass it by in complete silence than to make so half-hearted a gesture toward it. Why bother to refer to fewer than a dozen fairly recherché articles, when most of the book is written with such self-confident zest? Being a mythographer, Calasso is not held to the rules of coherence and consistency which harry more academic writers. As he says himself,

If, out of some perversity of tradition, only one version of some mythical event has come down to us, it is like a body without a shadow, and we must do our best to trace out that invisible shadow in our minds.

Calasso writes in language drawn from the myths themselves, and partly in consequence his work has, from moment to moment, an air of chronological progression. Children succeed parents, divine and human; different stages of the world succeed one another. But he finishes where he began, like the mythical serpent which swallows its own tail. He gives his own quasi-mythical explanations of the development of things—how metamorphoses flourished and ceased, how meat-eating was essential to the foundation of civic society, how the Spartans secularized the sacred band of initiates and so invented the Stalinist type of society. Other Greeks chose perfection as opposed to power; Sparta chose power for itself and institutionalized terror.

Sparta is surrounded by the erotic aura of the boarding school, the garrison, the gymnasium, the jail. Everywhere there are Mädchen in Uniform, even if that uniform is a taut and glistening skin.

Responsibility and guilt, too, present themselves in mythological shapes: as the excerpt from the book published below suggests, the gods invade the mind, and human agents cannot be wholly responsible. Calasso also deals in the timeless and the aphoristic. Thus he points out that the Greek gods give no commandments, and writes that Greek rules of moderation and injunctions to “know thyself” are “maxims elaborated by man to defend himself from the gods.” The classical is “a hybrid between the barbaric and the neoclassical.” Zeus fathered Helen on the goddess Nemesis; this shows that “the greatest exploit of Zeus’s reign [was] that of having forced necessity to bring forth beauty.” Erichthonius, ancestor-hero of Athens, was born when Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena; his seed fell to earth and engendered a man whose body ended in the earthy form of a serpent. Athena reared the baby, and that is why the Athenians, “fruit of a craftsman’s not-to-be-satisfied desire for a goddess,” are close to the goddess, to her quality of detachment, and to the quest for perfection of form. Greek myth “escapes from ritual like a genie from a bottle.” After the regime of “commensality,” convivial meetings of men and gods, came, as we have seen a second time, that of rape. But there also came.

the third regime, the modern one…that of indifference, but with the implication that the gods have already withdrawn, and hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise. Such is the peculiar situation of the modern world.

Calasso’s book is brilliant, dazzling to read, a labyrinth lit by a fire. The whole of Greek mythology is simultaneously present from Homer to Nonnus at the very end of pagan antiquity, the strange figure who versified (in forty-eight books!) the exploits of the god Dionysus, and who also versified the Gospel according to Saint John. The book winds and retraces a complex path, through a world in which temporal succession is not a firm rule, and in which human sexuality, desire, pursuit, flight, possession, underlie and explain everything, from the rules of cult to the pattern of the stars and the color of the flowers. We have lost the ability to see the world in those mythical terms; to us the sky and its stars do not suggest order and a human history, but, Calasso writes,

The truth is it is the [Greek] myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet out newly opened eyes.

This Issue

April 22, 1993