Day 183: The Greek Myths

Cover for The Greek MythsThe Greek Myths is classicist and writer Robert Graves’ well respected and unconventional translation and interpretation of a comprehensive collection of Greek myths. Graves explains that rather than interpret the myths psychologically (i.e., Oedipus), which he appears to have some disdain for, it is more useful and accurate to look at them in combination with the findings of archaeology, as a sort of historic record. Graves relates each myth, with all its variants, and then provides sometimes copious notes to explain each facet. He also points out the many similarities among world myths, showing the relationships between Greek myths and those of the Celts, Sumerians, Jews, and others.

It is Graves’ contention that most of the Greek myths with which we are familiar were manipulations and distortions by the Hellenes of the religious beliefs of the people they conquered. There were four migrations of the Hellenes into Greece. After the first two, the patriarchal Hellenes adopted the matriarchal religions of their hosts, but in the last two, the Hellenes forced the existing tribes to follow their beliefs and then consciously distorted their mythologies to reflect this change.

For example, there are many instances where Zeus chases and rapes various nymphs. In the earlier myths, the three-headed goddess in one of her forms would have been chasing the king as part of a ritual ceremony, so the myth has been turned on its head. Similarly, many a Greek hero’s exploits that involve fighting and killing an opponent are a perversion of the ritual whereby the king is “killed” by his tanist–or alternate ruler (“twin” or “son”)–at the end of his reign and then in turn actually kills the tanist to take up his reign again. Grave states, “Like Aeschylus, Euripedes was engaged in religious propaganda.”

The ideas Graves espouses are very interesting and the book is extremely well written. However, the sheer number of names and places and similar incidents can be overwhelming. Some deities or other figures go by six or eight names, for example. And there’s only so much killing and rapine a person can take. I finally bogged down over Heracles, who has more than 100 of the 600+ pages devoted to him (and whose adventures are very similar to those of Gilgamesh). Heracles, I feel, was a thug, and round about his tenth labor, which was particularly rambling, I gave up on him.

My intention in reading this work was to come out with a more coherent idea of the whole of Greek mythology, but ironically, I feel this book is too comprehensive for me to meet that goal–that something simpler would have worked better for me. However, for serious students of mythology, this is probably required and interesting reading.

Day 162: Religion and the Decline of Magic

Cover for Religion and the Decline of MagicKeith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, first published in 1971, is not for the faint-hearted. Thomas is a British historian, and this book is considered an important work because of its then revolutionary combination of research in the fields of history and anthropology.

With that kind of background, you might expect the book to be academic in writing style. It is not, but in fact is actually very accessible and well written. I say it is not for the faint-hearted because of its length and the numerous examples of every point, expected for an academic text but a little rough on the casual reader. These examples are mostly interesting; it is the number of them illustrating every point that threatens to become tedious. The book is 800-900 pages long, depending upon the edition, and nearly half of it is devoted to notes, additional explanations, and references. And truth be told, I was reading the electronic version so could not judge my progress, but it felt like I was reading a lot more than, say, 500 pages. (I did not read the back matter.)

Thomas concentrates upon the history of magic in England from roughly 1500 to 1700, tracing the changes in how the different types of “magic” are viewed and treated by the common people, the judicial and governmental authorities, and the religious ones. His definition of magic is rather broad, including alchemy–which at the time was considered a science and is now generally regarded as the forerunner to modern science–and astrology–which again was considered a science at the time. I believe his inclusion of these disciplines was because at some time they were also considered magic, at least by the church.

Thomas shows that the Catholic church actually encouraged a belief in magic in some ways–linking the connection between prayer and incantations, for example, and fostering a belief in the efficacy of exorcism–consciously building on pagan beliefs to encourage conversion just as it did when it adopted a slew of pagan holidays and modified them to its own purposes.

The ways in which religious leaders and common folk viewed magic, then, changed radically with the Protestant Reformation. Protestant clerics were actually less likely to, for example, attempt to prosecute witches even though the laws defining witchcraft and the penalties against it were prone to fluctuate between more strict or more lenient over time. On the other hand, prosecutions of witches that originated with demands by the common people–who initially were not inclined to fear witchcraft but had to be taught to do it–became more common and more hysterical as the Protestants increased their preaching against it.

Thomas’s premise is that the ultimate decline in witchcraft as a concern of the public and the powers of justice was a result of the Enlightenment–the increasing number of truly scientific studies and the assumption that everything can be understood in terms of science–and ultimately the increase in technology that eventually became the industrial revolution.

This book can be an absorbing study for those who are interested in the subject. I made a good-faith effort to finish it but found that I eventually was unable to cope with the myriad of examples of every point. I skipped maybe 50-100 pages to the conclusions, but when I found the same technique employed there too, I finally gave myself permission to quit. I found the writing style interesting and even dryly witty, but overall the intent of the work was too scholarly for my total enjoyment as a more casual reader.