Post 29: The Greek Myths by Robert Graves

It turns out that Robert Graves, of I, Claudius fame, really likes mushrooms. He also really likes his own form of Good Goddess pagan mysticism.

I generally try to be positive in my blog posts, which is somewhat helped by the fact that I tend to read books or listen to podcasts that I actually enjoy (or at least think I will enjoy). I bought this book in the second hand section at Blackwell’s Bookshop with high (and somewhat naive) expectations – his reputation for historical fiction is well deserved so I was eager to see his factual take on Greek mythology. I had a number of issues with this book – a few of them my fault for not really understanding what the author was attempting to do beforehand, but there were others for which I would pin the blame on the author.

So what was the author attempting to do? And why did I misunderstand this? Well, the idea was to re-write the Greek myths from the perspective of a classical Roman historian (someone from the Antonine period, rather than a modern historian of that period). That sort of 2nd century A.D. era was centuries distant from the mythical Greek origins and allows a rather restricted but critical narration of the myths. This kind of writing in character would certainly have some sort of literary merit but, for my tastes, Graves fails to bring any sort of character or personality to his fictional historian. The writing style comes across as a rather stilted translation of a drab, second rate historian. It’s certainly consistent in tone, but it doesn’t really feel like it goes far enough for this to be a worthwhile exercise. However, I’m no scholar of poetry and there’s a chance that there may be some subtlety here that’s being lost on me.

What would I blame the author for? Well, the literary element is barely half the book – much of it is taken up by footnotes, which aim to add a modern interpretation of these myths and an explanation of their origin. Unfortunately Robert Graves has quite an independent way of thinking on this. The book was written back in the mid-fifties, but even then his views were niche and discredited. He attempts to place everything within a grand theory involving an ancient matriarchal religion (he spends a lot of time references his other book on the subject, The White Goddess). There’s also a bizarre prologue at the start explaining his new found love of psychedelic fungi and his inspiration through their visions …

“I have myself eaten the hallucigenic mushroom, psilocybe, a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries. Tlaloc was engendered by lightning; so was Dionysus; and in Greek folklore, as in Masatec, so are all mushrooms — proverbially called `food of the gods’ in both languages. Tlaloc wore a serpent-crown; so did Dionysus. Tlaloc had an underwater retreat; so had Dionysus. The Maenads’ savage custom of tearing off their victims’ heads may refer allegorically to tearing off the sacred mushroom’s head — since in Mexico its stalk is never eaten.”

To be blunt, it’s utter nonsense and there’s little of value there for the reader.

Is there anything good about the book? Yes, actually. It’s very comprehensive and despite finding the writing style of the main sections a bit drab, different myths and characters are collected and juxtaposed in a way that builds a clear picture of the ancient Greek mythological world. He’s particularly convincing in his descriptions and comparisons of the creation myths. There’s some concepts which could be more fully explained (ideally that could have been done in the footnotes, but they went down a stranger path) but one would struggle to think of any stories that have been left out or misplaced. Despite this, it’s very concise and there’s a huge amount packed into a very short space. It’s not the readable and knowledgeable primer that I thought it would be, but I did come out of it with a wider knowledge of the gods and heroes.

The idea behind the book isn’t a bad one and I like the comprehensiveness, but unfortunately the flat prose and the odd interpretations make it a big letdown. I’m still interested in reading further on greek myths and have Travelling Heroes by Robin Lane Fox fairly high up my shortlist – although any thoughts on the subject would be appreciated.

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