The Emperor has never looked so good.
From literary retellings to stage adaptations, from art and cinema to poetry and metaphor; the one collection of stories to which the western tradition is perhaps most indebted is Greek mythology. Stories of gods and heroes told millennia ago still echo strongly in the popular culture of today. Writers such as William Shakespeare and Colm Tóibín, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, all used the stories and motifs of Greek mythology in their work. They recognised the timelessness of the Greek tradition, the pertinence it bore to our everyday existence. They used the Greek legends not only to entertain but to instruct, explain and investigate all facets of human life. What is it about these myths that inspire us to delve into their depths again and again, and always come away with something new?
An answer may be found in the science of mythology itself. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell posited that myth is a transhistorical process of psychic reckoning. The Greek myths are to be taken seriously, not just as enchanting tales, but as expressions of wisdom that are encoded within all of us. We come back to the Greek myths time and time again because within them we find reflections of ourselves. The gods of Olympus and ancient heroes represent archetypes common and recognisable to all of us - Zeus the father, Hera the mother, Aphrodite the lover, and so on. The concerns of the gods are universal concerns; even the most fantastical myths are rooted in some common human endeavour. When we hear the story of the Trojan War, we feel for Hector and Achilles, we empathise with the sacrifices that they made thousands of years ago. When Hector, with grim determination, decides that he will do his duty and face his death, we too are inspired to meet our battles head-on. When we read of the vicissitudes Odysseus experienced in his 10-year voyage, we can recognise his monsters and his fortunes in our own journeys.
But as cultures and values change, the stories change too, growing with the times. The Greeks admired their wily hero Odysseus, whilst the Romans, with their strong sense of moral rectitude, cast Ulysses as something of a villainous charlatan. Examples of old myths "changing with the times" proliferate in the modern era as well. Take Disney’s Hercules for example, a film so unfaithful to its source material that it makes the philandering Zeus look like the most loyal of husbands. In the original myth Hera, enraged by her husband Zeus’ infidelity, does everything in her power to kill the demigod Hercules. She dispatches snakes to kill him in his cradle, compels him to do battle with monsters in the hopes that he is slain, and eventually drives him to madness so that he kills his wife and children.
Disney’s Hercules, in contrast, presented a tale that was far more palatable to the tastebuds of 90s middle America. Zeus and Hera are depicted as Hercules’ loving, filial parents, whilst Hercules’ uncle Hades, God of the underworld, is recast as a villain bent on world domination. After 1,500 years of Christian influence, the western world has taken to equating the underworld with Hell and Hades with the devil.
In even more recent years we have seen yet another shift in how the myths of Ancient Greece have been updated to match the mores of modern audiences. The Greeks, notorious misogynists, often disparaged the women of their society. To counteract this, modern trends have seen many feminist retellings of Greek myths, giving female characters a voice through which they can tell their own stories. Two novels which have done this to great effect are Cassandra by Christa Wolf and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.
It is fair to say that the Greek myths will continue to hold sway over the popular imagination of the west for millennia to come. Greek mythology has exhibited a remarkable staying power, a degree of adaptability that can hardly be matched. Despite changes in attitudes and values, the ancient myths possess a universal appeal that transcends cultural mores. In 2,000 years we may have a rendition of Hercules playing on the theatres of Mars, a link to the past that is forever changing, but that will never be forgotten.
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