Greek Mythology according to Stephen Fry

Mythology Versus Religion

Reading Stephen Fry’s retelling of Greek mythology in his novel Mythos, I had an epiphany as to how it is possible for Creationists to believe the world was created in six days, little more than 6000 years ago. In his entertaining version of events Fry drew on multiple sources—from Homer to Ovid—yet declares in the Afterword:

If anyone tells me that I have got the stories ‘wrong’ I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions. In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths. In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.

My eureka moment came in his re-telling of the day Phaeton convinced his father, Apollo, to let him drive the sun-steeds across the sky. The anthropomorphism of dawn—Eos or Aurora—struck me as more plausible than any tale of Moses, Noah or Jesus that I have yet read.

As Phaeton spoke Eos came forward in a bright cloud of pearl and rose. She bowed smilingly to Apollo and Helios, looked a puzzled question at the blushing Phaeton in the chariot and took up her position at the gates of dawn.

To a traveller looking eastwards and upwards at the clouds in which the Palace of the Sun was hidden, the first sign that Eos was at work always came in the form of a flush coral pink that suffused the sky. As she threw the gates wider, that soft pink hardened into a gleam of gold which grew brighter and fiercer.

Greek Mythology PHAETON

Phaeton driving the sun-steeds: his spree would leave the Sahara eternally scorched and the Arctic frozen (at least until global warming).

Greek Mythology in Science

At the end of this tale, Phaeton is dead and his lover Cygnus is distraught, wailing plaintively. Taking pity, Apollo transforms Cygnus into a swan—mute until it is permitted to mourn Phaeton once more, in its swan song, and baby swans are of course called cygnets.

My mind marveled at this story on two levels. One, as an illustration of Western scientists’ adherence to Greek whimsy, as described in this article: The Adaptation of Names from Classical Mythology as Scientific Terminology.

Secondly, as an example of the extent to which the human imagination will go to assign an explanation for the workings of nature in the absence of science. Since the moment Prometheus first gave humans fire, families must have sat around at night concocting stories. The vast majority of their tales would have died out with the embers, while others still hold us in their grip today.

It amazes me, for example, that once upon a time a person in Greece chose to spin a yarn about how the first spider came into being. A female weaver named Arachne dared to challenge the Goddess Athena to a weaving competition, apparently. And for her crimes, Arachne was hung from a tree and condemned to weave forever.

Greek Mythology ARACHNE

Athena transforming Arachne into a spider.

Reading these myths in Fry’s lucid and eternally wry rendering, my spongy brain embarked on a chicken-egg loop. Common sense would suggest every clan had an endemic term for the flora, fauna, weather and celestial entities in their vicinity. Then thanks to the power of oral recitation and the phenomena of memes, it perhaps came to be that the most audacious tale prevailed and everyone in the region adopted the same Greek and Latin terms, from which modern English derived, and which scientists chose to preserve when they agreed to the system of binomial nomenclature.

When Fiction Becomes Fact

But common sense be damned. It was at this point that the Bible entered my musing (a word naturally derived from the nine Muses of Greek mythology, said to inspire the various art forms). I found myself wanting to believe that in fact the swan had not existed before Phaeton lost control of his father’s chariot; that the spider had not existed before Arachne depicted the Gods’ depravity on her loom.

 

If these stories could cause me—of arguably sound mind and body, living in the information-rich (though post-truth) twenty-first century—to suddenly re-examine the origins of the world, I finally understood how people might have warmed (and clung) to the stories of the New Testament. Like the Greek myths, every chapter would have begun life as an oral legend, until finally being captured on paper: as much as a century after Jesus Christ was purported to have walked the Earth.

Imagine trying to record the efforts of a single World War One hero right now, with zero living witnesses and no internet? And yet two thousand years later, Christians still take the Bible as gospel, just as others are enthralled by the Quran or the fabula of Vedic Literature. This has always mystified me but after reading Mythos I’ve finally been able to find a semblance of understanding for people of faith. Just as the capricious splendor of the Greek Gods appeals to my literary mind, the tenets of the various religions must strike sensible people so cleanly in the brain that they cast the stories in stone and model their lives accordingly.

Meanwhile, in Greece, shrines to the ancient Gods still stand and places still bear names suggestive of their exploits. Part of me wants to believe the colors of dawn are indeed created by a Goddess emerging from her bedchamber in a cloud of pearl and rose—and thus, henceforth, I shall.   

Greek Mythology EOS

The personification of dawn: Eos/Aurora.

 

    

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