Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Return to Greece

Do you know the book D-Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths? Trading on my grandson Malik’s interest in super-heroes, I decided to steer that energy toward the founding stories of Western Civilization and read it to him. It’s the least a 7-year old should know. 


And he is fully on board, as we work our way through the fantastic, the imaginative, the big stories of divine wrath, jealousy, betrayal and benevolence, of mortal tragedies and comedies.  What’s astounding to even me is how much these stories from a few thousand years ago still echo into today. (Indeed, the very word Echo comes from the Nymph who fell in love with Narcissus). While I read to him, we notice that the shoes Malik got for his birthday are named for Athena’s consort Nike. (Though the company is not presently worthy of its name, as Nike  was the spirit of victory who stayed by Athena’s side, but fought only for just causes. A contrast to the dark money the company gives to the Republican Party). That Peter Pan from the Disney cartoon we watched last night (with appropriate discussion about the stereotypical parts) is a re-incarnation of the satyr Pan, not only in name, but in his panpipe-playing frolicking. The restaurant Eos we passed the other day is named for the goddess of the dawn and mother of the four winds and my daughter Talia, Malik’s favorite Aunt, is named for the Muse of Comedy and Poetry (sometimes spelled Thalia). Everywhere we turn, the old Greeks myths appear.


Think about it. All of the planets except for Earth are named for the Roman names of the Greek Gods— Mercury, Venus, Mars, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter and yes, I’m still including Pluto. The constellations in the sky (and some astrological signs) — Hercules, Pegasus, Casseiopeia, Perseus, Gemini (Castor and Pollux), Orion, Scorpius, Andromeda, Aquarius, Centaurus and many, many more. The months March, May and June from Mars, Maia and Juno. The psychological complexes that were first described in the myths of Oedipus, Narcissus and King Midas, Nietzche’s contemporary philosophy exploring the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Achille’s heel, Ariadne’s thread and Cupid’s arrows. The deep imagery of Pandora (also the name of a music-streaming service) opening the box, Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill, Prometheus stealing fire, Icarus falling from the sky, the Minotaur threading through the labyrinth. 


The Renaissance owes much of its rebirth of culture to a return to Greece. In painting, there is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Carvaggio’s Triumph of Galatea and Narcissus, Rubens’ Leda and the Swan and Prometheus Bound. In the post-Renaissance musical world, there’s Handel’s Atalanta, Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, Schubert’s Coachman Kronos and Mendelssohn’s Oedipus at Colonus.  In the opera world, there’s Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Gluck’s Echo and Narcissus, Handel’s , Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos and Elektra.Though not well known or often performed, Carl Orff wrote three works inspired by ancient Greece— AntigonaeOedipus the Tyrant and Prometheus. Modern dancer Martha Graham incorporated much Greek mythology in her works Errand in the MazeCave of the HeartClytemnestra and Night Journey. 


Literature and poetry inspired by the ancient Greek stories famously includes the novel Ulyssesby James Joyce and a number of recently published works including Madeline Miller’s Circe, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)’s poem Priapus: Keeper of Orchards, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Sylvia Plath’s Medusa. In the film world, there is the French  Orpheus, the Brazilian Black Orpheus, the Greek Electra,  the Italian Medea and the American O Brother Where Are Thou?


I think you get the picture. The Greek myths continue to resonate in current times, be it in the fields of psychology, literature, art, music or business. They’ve captured the imagination of both children and adults for centuries. Yet are they being taught in schools? Are they considered too old-fashioned or politically incorrect or simply unneeded next to learning coding? My experience with Malik suggests that they are still worthy of our attention and necessary to being an informed, cultured, educated person. Had we understood the sickness of Narcissus, would we have continued to allow 45 to sit in the White House? Would Wall Street begin to reform itself if they understood the dangers of the Midas touch? Would we be a touch more aware of caring for Earth when considering Icarus’ fall?


Stay tuned for the next chapter in the Education of Malik— the Odyssey. 

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