A World of Omens and Oracles

Article excerpt

WHAT is at once so familiar and so strange as the world of the Greek myths? The nightly skies are strewn with planets and constellations bearing the Greek or Roman names of mythical gods and heroes: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Orion, the Pleiades. English literature glitters with allusions to Apollo, Pan, Odysseus, Troy, the Muses, Helen, Leda and the Swan.

Classical values are woven into the fabric of Western culture. Classical ideals of self-government informed the thought of America's founding fathers and also inspired the authors of the French Revolution. Concepts of athletic competition, geometry, metaphysics, and aesthetics also owe much to classical models.

Yet, how alien and archaic this vanished world sometimes seems: a world of omens and oracles, where the sacred and the profane mingled close at hand and a polytheistic pantheon of gods and goddesses seemed to spend most of their time acting out a lurid soap opera of passion, jealousy, revenge, seduction, and abduction, with a hefty measure of metamorphosis thrown in to keep things moving. Nor is there any single source or sacred text, like the Bible or the Koran, to which the reader can turn to study Greek mythology.

As the Italian author and editor Roberto Calasso points out in "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony," "The Greeks were unique among the peoples of the Mediterranean in not passing on their stories via a priestly authority. They were rambling stories, which is partly why they so easily got mixed up. And the Greeks became so used to hearing the same stories told with different plots that it got to be a perfectly normal thing for them."

What we know of Greek mythology comes from many sources: statues, temples, coins, inscriptions, and of course literature - from the solemn works of Homer to the playful writings of Ovid and the disbelieving satires of Lucian.

Calasso draws on a vast array of variant myths and stories and molds them into a single text, which - though scarcely definitive - may still be one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible modern attempts at recreating this vanished world.

Part narrative, part meditation, this marvelously engrossing book plunges the reader right into the thick of the mythological action with its opening scene, in which Zeus, disguised as a bull, carries off a girl called Europa from the coastline of Asia to the island of Crete. There, her descendants, the lonely, monstrous Minotaur and his sister Ariadne, will play their parts in the story of Theseus, founder of Athens.

Meanwhile, Europa's brother Cadmus, sent to search for his abducted sister, ends up founding the city of Thebes, saving Zeus himself from a primordial monster, and marrying the lovely Harmony, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. …