Modern Myth-Making | Connecting with Culture
Several of the most talked-about recent books retell the Greek myths.
Emily Wilson’s English translation of Homer’s Odyssey is the first by a woman. Madeline Miller’s Circe and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls provide feminist takes on the Odyssey and the Iliad respectively. Stephen Fry’s latest offerings, Mythos and Heroes, retell the tales of Greek gods and heroes. Why are we drawn back to these stories to help us make sense of the world around us?
In the introductions to his books, Fry argues that Greek myths show us ‘men and women who grasp their destinies [and] use their human qualities […] to perform astonishing deeds and dare to make the world safe for humans to flourish’. However, these figures are also deeply flawed, existing – as we do – in a ‘baffling world, with its cruelties, wonders, caprices, beauties, madness, and injustice’. They are pitted against rulers in the form of the gods, who the Greeks created in their own image: ‘warlike but creative, wise but ferocious, loving but jealous, tender but brutal, compassionate but vengeful.’ On both sides of the battles are figures displaying the most precious and the most dangerous aspects of human nature.
While these core attributes may not have changed much over the centuries, our own culture shares few superficial similarities with the backdrop to Greek myths. We live in an age where many have lost faith in a divine power, lost trust in traditionally ‘heroic’ political leaders, and – if the postmodernists are to be believed – lost confidence in grand narratives. This is often seen as a challenge to Christianity, a worldview founded on a sweeping story about a divine being and his relationship to the humans that he created.
However, Christians are in fact well-positioned as gatekeepers of a classic, ancient story that speaks to today’s culture. While it is equally honest about the dark side of humanity, it offers hope by showing that, unlike in the Greek myths, heaven is not pitted against earth. Instead, the two come together in the form of a figure both fully human and fully God, who existed without flaw and who shows that true heroism involves not brutality and vengeance, but humility and sacrifice.
Perhaps it’s time for us to find new, creative ways of telling and retelling this story. In a baffling world, we have good news to share.
Rachel attends King’s Church Durham.