Lying in a darkened hotel room between crisp white sheets I was nearing the abyss of sleep when Muffin, my 10-year old niece, in the adjacent bed, asked me if I knew of the River Styx. At that Hypnos lessened his delicate embrace. I opened my eyes and Morpheus, the god of dreams, slipped out of the room. Three-headed Cerberus shifted into position and barred the door.
Muffin then wondered aloud as to the value of the coins placed on the tongues of the dead that Charon the Ferryman demanded to escort his passengers across the river. How could it be that my sweet, compassionate 10-year old niece spoke so knowingly of Death and the Underworld?
When she asked if I knew Hermes I propped myself on an elbow. By the glow of the digital clock I watched her recount her knowledge of the winged messenger, conveyer of souls to the Underworld. As she spoke she raised her arms as if she orchestrated a symphony for the newly deceased. I lay in my bed, enraptured.
As Muffin chronicled the plight and punishment of the Titan Prometheus, the tenor of her voice increased in vigor, as if the eagle appeared before her, hungry for that regenerative liver. Rebellious Prometheus who carried fire to the mortals against the edict of Zeus. Zeus, the all powerful, preferred that his subjects remain fearful, and in the dark.
I asked Muffin how she knew so much about Death, Hell, selfish Gods and altruistic Titans. She corrected me. The Underworld is not the same as Hell. Lord, who is this child?
In Muffin’s retelling of these ancient myths I considered the pervasiveness of Greek influence on our culture. It’s so prevalent we don’t notice.
The study of Greek was once considered the epitome (a word derived from the Greek) of higher learning. Hence our use of their alphabet in college fraternities and sororities, and graduation honors. Think Phi Beta Kappa the acme (another word derived from the Greek) of achievement.
Greece was the first “democracy,” the word dates to the 5th century B.C., meaning rule of the people.
The Olympics, the marathon, we all know, originated in Greece.
Dozens of films recount Greek myth: Black Orpheus, Ulysses, Jason and the Argonauts, and the recent Clash of the Titans with the laugh out loud line, “Release the Kraken.” Our use of Greek myth is not always laudable, or accurate.
Much of our language derives from the Greek. I once named a cat Zephyr (Greek god of the west wind). Speak the word aloud, and it imbues its definition, a soft breeze. Aroma, basil and nectar – delicious Greek words to name but a few.
Greece is much vilified in the press of late. According to some Greece is single-handedly responsible for bringing down the entire Euro zone. I’m sure it has nothing to do with bankers, or corrupt politicians or outdated policies, or even the one percent, who as those in the U.S., refuse to pay their share of taxes. And somehow Goldman Sachs must be involved.
Believing that my fascination with Greek myth had more to do with the tales themselves than with her oral storytelling, Muffin handed me the book she had just finished: The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu. She suggested I might like to read it. I have, and it’s a fine book. Greek myth reimagined for tweens with a helpful cat, and an all-knowing grandmother.
I’d like to celebrate Greece’s prodigious contribution to Western civilization. And to praise those who refashion the mythology in a way that ignites the imagination, as Ms. Ursu has, and countless others: poets, artists, filmmakers, linguists.
To be in the presence of a 10 year old girl, her mind and body aflame with Greek myth, and all that it signifies, is to experience profound joy. For that alone Greece ought to be applauded.
Do you have a favorite Greek myth?
p.s. For a look at modern Greece’s filmmaking, I recommend Dogtooth, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards. A bizarre but entertaining film of homeschooling gone terribly wrong.