The Story So Far

Poetry Nation Review

March/April 2003

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth
Jeanette Winterson, Weight
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
(Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005)

It was with some relief that I picked up these three volumes in Canongate’s new series, The Myths. For too long the field of mythology has been aggressively ploughed by the more rigorous followers of Roland Barthes. When he himself began, half a century ago, to read certain artefacts of popular culture as ‘myths’, and to ponder their hidden bourgeois agenda in a series of elegant articles, it must have seemed very exciting. Who would have thought that a magazine cover or a wrestling match or an advert for washing powder could merit so much political speculation? But in the intervening years, with the institutionalisation of his insights, a speculative method has been reduced to a mechanical exercise. First, catch your artefact. Next, search out its secret. Now call it a ‘myth’. The order is variable, in practice; but as long as one succeeds in demonstrating that the ‘myth’ suppresses history and discourages radical cultural change, the job is done. ‘Mythology’, in short, is synonymous with ‘ideology’, in its pejorative sense. It is a realm of delusion.

Such an approach may properly be assigned to what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Insofar as it has triumphed, mythology as traditionally understood has tended to be overlooked. The approach works best with Hello rather than Homer, with Diehard rather than Dionysus – which rather narrows its potential. Just as importantly, the idea that mythology is valuable precisely because it can provide opportunities to revise our view of ourselves and our world – as propounded by Ricoeur and by writers as diverse as Ernst Bloch and Marina Warner – has been regarded as eccentric. The Canongate series, based on the idea that traditional stories still matter, and that they can be told and retold indefinitely, always throwing up new kinds of significance, is therefore especially welcome. It reminds us of a pleasing paradox: mythology is both universal and cultural, both timeless and historical. It is a realm of perpetual possibility.

This world is opened up for us by Karen Armstrong in the introductory volume, A Short History of Myth. The very title is another reminder of the fact that myths are told in time; what she does is demonstrate how they acquire new significance as history unfolds. She knows the value of keeping the past alive in the present for the future. Deities of sky and earth, seasonal sacrifices, rites of passage: they all begin to resonate once more, thanks to the considerable weight of her learning, which Armstrong wears very lightly indeed. Similarly, she manages to survey religions which are at ease with myths (Hinduism, Buddhism) and ones which pretend to do without them but actually rewrite them radically (Judaism, Christianity), with such an eye for relevance that we can only wonder why we ever thought we could get away with neglecting them.

Of course, anyone who sets out to trace the development of mythology from 20,000 BCE to 2005CE in one short volume must be aware of the risks. Someone is bound to fault one’s scholarship on specific points, even if one is the author of some of the most important studies in religion and cultural history written over the past twenty years. Did the ‘Sky God’ really precede the ‘Great Goddess’? There are plenty of scholars willing to argue the reverse. Do ‘hero’ myths really date back as far as the Paleolithic era? The more widespread assumption is that mythology does not feature human protagonists until the rise of a patriarchal warrior class.

I am sure that Armstrong could respond coherently and cogently to such challenges. But a more general concern is likely to be expressed, not by fellow scholars of myth but by proponents of the dreaded ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. Has not mythology been replaced by science, which saved us once and for all from irrationality? Here Armstrong has to draw on an ancient lesson, exploring the distinction in Greek thought between mythos (story) and logos (reason): philosophers began to mistrust the one and overvalue the other, but they found they couldn’t do without either. Plato realised that the best way of explaining his new ideas was to revise the old stories. Moreover, Plato – along with Buddha, Lao-Tse and others – exemplifies Karl Jaspers’ ‘Axial Age’ (c. 800-200 BCE), the era in which the meaning of mythology became more and more internalised and spiritualised. We who belong to what Armstrong calls ‘The Great Western Transformation’ (c. 1500-2000CE) need to learn that Axial lesson anew. We need to keep making finer and finer sense of myths if we are not to act them out disastrously in the historical world (think of Auschwitz, think of Stalin’s gulags, think of Bosnia).

In short, according to Armstrong, we suppress one or other of these dimensions – mythos or logos – at our peril. Myth without reason, or reason without myth: either way, we fail to live as fully spiritual, fully ethical, fully human beings. It is in our interests to keep mythology alive and well, not to surrender to the fallacy of ‘demythologisation’. Her case is unanswerable, it seems to me, and not only because it chimes in with my own modest researches. It certainly creates high expectations for the retelling of myths which the rest of the series is about. We are not disappointed.

In Weight, Jeanette Winterson reworks the ancient Greek story of Atlas, the Titan condemned to hold up the heavens on his shoulders, as a punishment for leading a rebellion against the new order of Olympian deities, ruled by Zeus. This story overlaps with that of Heracles, one of the many offspring resulting from sexual liaisons between Zeus and mortal women. We may recall the ‘twelve labours’ he undertook in his attempt to evade the animosity of Zeus’s wife, Hera, and to earn the right to live forever. One of these tasks was to pick the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas and Hespiris. Heracles offered to take over Atlas’s wearisome work briefly, provided Atlas would go and gather the fruit; Atlas thought he might use this opportunity to escape from his burden once and for all, but Heracles tricked him into resuming his position.

Knowing this material inside out, Winterson offers us an audacious and intriguing exploration of what it means to want freedom, while knowing that there must always be a boundary to one’s desires (as for Atlas), and of what it is like to be constantly preoccupied with both love and death, divinity and humanity, immortality and fate (as for Heracles). Making all this seem relevant today without descending into bathos cannot be easy, but Winterson manages to incorporate colloquial exchanges between the characters (‘You see, Atlas, my old mountain, my old mate…’) without marring the lapidary style which proves so effective in the refashioning of the myth (‘Time was my Medusa. Time was turning me to stone…’). Nor should we overlook her ability to fuse ancient Greek cosmology (‘I am the Kosmos…’) and contemporary physics (‘Atlas was in a black hole…’). What carries her through is her faith in the supremacy of storytelling, which is well rewarded here.

It is a faith shared by Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad is her retelling of the story of Penelope and Odysseus, chiefly from the point of view of the former (though not exclusively). This treating of background as foreground permits us illuminating glimpses of an alternative world, in which male heroics appear less impressive than we had thought. Further destabilisation is achieved by letting the female protagonist speak from the perspective of the underworld, Penelope being dead by the time she tells her side of the story. In Hades she is free to comment on the vain, incurably flirtatious Helen, the Greek beauty who ran away with Paris to Troy, thus causing the Trojan War, which is the subject of Homer’s Iliad. But her main focus is on the clumsy but crafty Odysseus, the Greek hero whose long journey back from the war is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Penelope takes the part of the patient wife besieged by suitors. Death distances us from what used to be the main events; the female voice allows another sense of humanity to be heard.

Odysseus’ innumerable adventures and sexual intrigues with goddesses, his final return in disguise to Ithaca, his recognition by his old nurse, his slaying of the suitors and of those maids of Penelope whom he thinks to have betrayed the household’s honour, his reunion with his wife: we are used to thinking of these as impressive achievements. But Atwood allows us to think otherwise, and to question the cult of the male hero. This is done subtly, without denying Odysseus’ capacity for charm and intrigue as well as brute force, so that we do not feel ourselves to be reading a feminist tract. Indeed, the feminist tract features as part of a general medley of voices heard throughout the novel (which includes poems, songs, dramatic scenes, court transcripts, etc). The murdered maids give a lively, if posthumous, lecture on anthropology, focussing on the suppression of matriarchal goddess-worship by patriarchal hero-worship. But when, at the end of Odysseus’ trial, they summon up the Furies to ensure his eternal punishment, they inadvertently allow for a shift of sympathy. The more he keeps having to be reborn (‘He’s been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man….’), the more Penelope sees his side of the story again. Perhaps she realises that as the wayward warrior he was a lot less tedious than more recent occupants of Hades (‘Adolf’, for example).

Both Winterson’s and Atwood’s novels, nicely situated by Armstrong’s exposition, reveal the power of myth, when retold well, to challenge our preconceptions and to help us imagine otherness. ‘Mythology’ means so much more than ‘ideology’. The tale that can always be retold promises a new way of seeing, as this timely series has clearly begun to demonstrate.

Laurence Coupe