The Greek Myths Retold

Stephen Fry

Penguin – 410 pages

Stephen Fry is a well-known actor, popular television quiz show host, witty raconteur, documentary filmmaker, gay rights advocate, autobiographer, and writer. He has lately taken to retelling the Greek myths for a 21st century audience in two volumes. In the first, Mythos, he recounts the Creation of the world, the Clash of the Titans, the ascendency of the twelve Olympian Gods and their interactions with early humans. The second, Heroes, deals with the adventures of the Greek heroes of antiquity such as Hercules, Jason, Perseus and Theseus. Of course, these stories have been told for the last 5000 years, but never quite like this. Fry’s retelling is conversational and witty. It is as if he’s sitting with you in your lounge having a chat about people you know. “So did you hear who Aphrodite hooked up with at the banquet last night?” “Hot off the press: Zeus and Ganymede are an item now”. It’s also incredibly detailed and erudite, with plenty of interesting explanatory footnotes.

Fry became fascinated by the Greek myths after he picked up a copy of Tales of Ancient Greece when he was a child. He loved the energy, humour, passion of the stories populated by Fates and Furies, nymphs and satyrs, and of course the immortal pantheon of capricious gods and goddesses with all too human personality traits. Fry says “The Greeks did not grovel before their gods. They were aware of their vain need to be supplicated and venerated, but they believed men were their equal. Their myths understand that whoever created this baffling world, with its cruelties, wonders, caprices, beauties, madness and injustice, must themselves have been cruel, wonderful, capricious, beautiful, mad and unjust. The Greeks created gods that were in their image: warlike but creative, wise but ferocious, loving but jealous, tender but brutal, compassionate but vengeful.” These gods had infatuations and love affairs, often morphing into other creatures to trick their prey. Nothing would get in their way of having their way. There’s nothing remotely saintly about them.

The Greek Myths, as is the with mythologies of other cultures, provide an explanation to the eternal questions about natural phenomena such as the seasons, the cycle of the sun, thunder and lightning, volcanoes and earthquakes, as well as the origins of good and evil, war, wisdom, wine, music, medicine. They also explain how things got their names. Fry retells these tales with humour, elegance, charm and a colloquial twist.

The Ancients also had a more relaxed attitude to sex. Their gods were equal opportunity sexual beings: They would as easily fall in love with a nymph as with a human, with someone of the same or opposite sex. The myths are full of tales of homoerotic love and lust. No judgment, it is what it is.

One example is that of the god Dionysus and his passionate love for the youth Ampelos. So besotted was he with the youth that he arranged all kinds of sporting contests between the pair, the indulgent god always letting the spoilt youth win. This made the boy reckless and foolhardy. One day, whilst riding a wild bull, Ampelos foolishly boasted that he rode the beast more skilfully than the goddess Selene rode her horned moon. The furious goddess sent a gadfly to sting the bull, which threw his rider and gored him to death. The distraught Dionysus could not save him, but turned his lover’s mangled body into a vine, the drops of blood into grapes. And here we have the origins of wine. Trust the Greeks to turn tragedy into something wonderful!

Perhaps the most famous story is about Ganymede, a Prince of Troy, “who took the eye and indeed the breath of all who encountered him. No more beautiful youth had ever lived…His hair was golden, his skin like warm honey, his lips a soft, sweet invitation to lose yourself in mad and magical kisses….Men who had never in all their lives considered the appeal of their own sex, found their hearts hammering, the blood surging and pounding in their ears when they caught sight of him.” But because Ganymede was the son of an important king, nobody dared seduce him. Except of course, Zeus, the King of the Gods, who became maddened with desire on seeing the youth. Despite the scandal it would cause, and despite the furious, jealous rage of his spouse Queen Hera, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle, swept down to earth grabbing the sparkling youth and flew him to Olympus. In turned out to be more than lust and the god adored Ganymede and gave him the gift of immortality and eternal youth. Ganymede became, as Fry says, “a symbol of that particular kind of same-sex love which was to become so central a part of Greek life”.

Who knew that the names of some flowers had homoerotic roots? The West Wind Zephyrus and Apollo were both wooing Hyacinthus, a beautiful Spartan prince.  Of course, he succumbed to the golden Apollo, who wouldn’t? One day when the youth and the god were competing in an athletic event, the jealous West Wind blew Apollo’s discus off course, striking Hyacinthus in the head, killing him. The grief-stricken Apollo mixed his mortal lover’s blood with his own divine tears. “This heady juice dropped into the soil and from it bloomed the exquisite and sweet smelling flower that bears Hyacinth’s name to this day”.

And then there is Narcissus, a dazzling beauty who was lusted after by men and women, fauns and nymphs alike. He rejected all, but eventually fell hopelessly in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, not realising that he was filled with love and longing for himself. His unrequited love was so pitiful that the gods turned him into the beautiful daffodil that bears his name. Unfortunately, we all know a few people afflicted by narcissistic personality disorder.

All these ancient myths give an insight into the Greeks, whose culture has had such a huge influence on our own. Let Stephen Fry have the last word: “So while they may have been far from perfect, the ancient Greeks seem to have developed the art of seeing life, the world and themselves with greater candour and unclouded clarity than is managed by most civilizations, including perhaps our own.”

I so enjoyed reading Mythos, even though I know all these stories so well. I can’t wait to read Heroes. – ET

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