In the ancient world, myths seem to have functioned as repositories of cultural knowledge—historical (this is where and who we came from), sacred (this is what and who we believe in), didactic (this is how we should behave), among others. History, religion, philosophy, pedagogy…these are categories that we moderns have increasingly atomized; ancient myths conflated them. Where we claim “truth” and “lies” as mutually exclusive categories, ancient myths seem not to make these same distinctions. Myths can be “true” in some sense even though their details change significantly and purposefully over the centuries.
A few examples: In Homer Aphrodite seems to be Zeus’ daughter while in Hesiod, Aphrodite belongs to an earlier, pre-Olympian generation of gods. Achilles’ invulnerability does not factor in Homer, where Achilles is decidedly mortal and subject to physical injury, but post-classical versions of his myth offer two ways that Thetis strove to make her son’s body immune to death. In some versions of Oedipus’ story, he gouges out his own eyes after learning that Jocasta is his mother; in others, they continue to live together. Heracles alternately kills Megara before or after his labors. It depends on who is telling the story, when and where the story is being told.
Apparently, stability in the details was not as important as the act of telling and retelling the stories. It’s the act itself that matters, that maintains a shared tradition, even as the stories themselves evolve and change, along with the times. Paradoxically, then, each ancient community and generation that retold the myths participated both in preserving and in redefining tradition. Competing visions—of what the myths meant, who the gods were, how they interacted with mortals—were built into the tradition’s architecture. Rather than having a stable canon, the tradition seems to be defined by flexibility and adaptability.This can give us moderns the feeling that anything goes. From this follows: since the ancients changed their myths, can’t we too tell them any way we want? My provisional answer is that, unlike the ancients who reimagined the myths, we are outside of their tradition and culture, to varying degrees. But are we?
The image above pictures a range of books that engage thoughtfully with ancient Greek myth, history, philosophy. They’re the briefest of samples that suggest we both are and are not outside the tradition of retelling ancient stories.
Is it perhaps more fitting to ask what do we want or get out of retelling ancient myths? Do we, like the ancients, want to continue a dialogue and debate—about knowledge, the best way to live, the most important values to uphold—through transcendent stories about ideas or experiences? Do we find value in preserving the stories through retelling them? Or do we have other intentions?
As always, I am interested to hear your thoughts, impressions, questions, or anything else you wish to share.