The Greek Myths: 1 - Robert Graves

The Greek Myths: 1
Robert Graves
ISBN: 0140010262 (Amazon link)

I'm a great admirer of Graves' fiction, but I wasn't so taken by this title, and find it hard to recommend. I initially picked it up as (a) I've always enjoyed the Greek myths and fancied having a comprehensive and detailed reference work and (b) I recently read King Jesus and was impressed at the level of mythological synthesis he was able to work into such a familiar story as the Passion. I thought this looked like a more accessible introduction to his take on ancient myths and their symbolic significance than his, more obviously controversial, The White Goddess.

I certainly got the reference work I wanted. In fact, I feel like a child who asked Santa for a toy car and got a Rolls Royce. A real one. With a chauffeur. Graves presents a collection which goes far beyond the usual edited highlights available in most compilationss of Greek myth. These tend, annoyingly, to be aimed at the younger market, and thus omit all the really good stuff. Greek myths are nothing without the sex, the violence, more sex, the betrayals, even more sex, the politics, the frequent animal sex, the stealing, or the incest. In addition to presenting an undiluted brand of mythology, Graves doesn't stop with the familiar gods and heroes, but rounds up an entire host of figures that I recognised either not at all, or merely by a reference from a more famous modern work, eg Pygmalion. As an extreme and fairly ridiculous example, I was surprised to recognise the name of a recurring character from a Japanese computer game series, Square's Final Fantasy. Most of the versions of this game, now up to 12 I believe, feature a powerful thunder monster called Ixion. The mythical Ixion is a fairly unpleasant character; he burns his bride's father in a pit trap, escapes divine punishment only by the grace of a sympathetic Zeus, then turns around and tries it on with Zeus' wife! This is obviously the sort of caddish behaviour which results in one being bound to a fiery wheel which rolls without cease through the sky.

While comprehensive and fully referenced to original sources, the retellings themselves are very terse, usually no more than a page in length, and frequently shorter for the minor myths. While Graves' prose is always elegantly readable, this heavily condensed style makes the book hard to read cover to cover, which perhaps isn't surprising in a reference work. While predominately scholarly in tone, there are occasional flashes of humour. I particularly liked a piece of analysis dealing with the founding of Troy and Antioch by sacred cows in which Graves casts doubt on the strict literal interpretation, noting that " A cow's strategic and commercial sensibilities are not highly developed".

As suggested by the above comment, perhaps half of this title is Graves' analysis of each myth in a set of scholarly footnotes. I am merely a casual reader, but a swift Google, particularly with reference to The White Goddess, reveals that while Graves' research and scholarship is admired, there is a feeling that his own interpretations are frequently speculative, and slanted heavily in favour of his pet theories involving sacred kings, their tanists and moon priestesses. Certainly by the time I was midway through, I was starting to weary of the remarkably similar analysis for many of the stories, and wondering if perhaps every myth was looking like a nail to Graves' mythological analysis hammer. I have no doubt that there is a strong case for Graves' historical and religious interpretation in many cases but I would have liked much more evidence presented for the interpretations. Perhaps I should go read The White Goddess... or a modern critique? Any suggestions?

As an example of how this analysis content radically alters the tone of what would otherwise be a straight reference, let's look at the above tale of Ixion. The retelling is less than a page in length, while the following analysis is just over a page. In this, Graves discusses the origins of Ixion's name, and suggests that "as an oak-king with mistletoe genitals, representing the thunder-god, he ritually married the rain-making Moon-goddess; and was then scourged, so that his blood and sperm would fructify the earth, beheaded with an axe, emasculated, spread-eagled to a tree, and roasted; after which his kinsmen ate him sacramentally." Ouch. Graves then discusses the relevant version of the Moon-goddess, the oak-cult, links between Etruscan depictions and analogues in Egyptian and Celtic art, related midsummer festivities, and tribal conflict origins of the myth and how the horse-cult led to the familiar Centaur myth. Remember folks, this is all on a typical page. It might be highly speculative, and disturbingly neo-pagan in places to modern reader, but it's unquestionably dense with information, ideas, and references. I had to admire the author even as I questioned how the mainstream academic would view the analysis.

In summary, this is a difficult title to recommend. It's a fine reference collection of myths, but that forms only half of the page-count, with the audience for the analysis being very limited. Perhaps the best indicator as to whether you'd find The Greek Myths useful or interesting might be your reaction to his novel King Jesus?

Posted: Thu - July 15, 2004 at 03:22 AM