Calasso’s landmark work is not just a retelling of the Greek myths – although the myths are central to the book. Rather, Calasso puts the myths, and their evolution, into perspective. Starting with Zeus’ rape of Europa, Calasso explores the Greek world’s uneasy relationship with their gods, and thereby tries to explain their relationship to the world.
Calasso finds patterns and subtle differences in familiar stories that I never noticed before. He writes poetically and persuasively. Speaking of the disaster wrought by the necklace given to Harmony by her mother Aphrodite for her wedding, Calasso explains the irony:
What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories. (p. 387)
This is a very enjoyable but by no means light read. First, the text assumes a fundamental understanding of ancient Greece’s philosophical terms. For a mythologist, this is just jargon. For me, it required a lot of trips to the dictionary – along with Wikipedia, I must admit. Likewise, even though I have a pretty good background in Classics, there were many myths and characters – especially from the older Greek Pantheon – with which I was unfamiliar. Again, these required a good deal of cross reference to understand Calasso’s arguments. Lastly, there’s the problem of chronology – while the book has numbered chapters, the structure is hard to understand. Some paragraphs seemed to bear no relationship to the paragraphs before or after them. I think this was intentional on the author’s part, hoping to emulate a kind of discussion with the reader. But there were times when I simply found it disorienting.
I would urge anyone with an interest in Classics or Greek mythology to read this book. I read it looking for a non-fiction title about mythology for the Read-A-Myth Challenge, and I would highly recommend it to the other participants in that challenge. I would simply urge readers to be patient – it’s not a book to be devoured in a day or two. I found myself reading a section, reflecting, sometimes re-reading and referencing, and then finally moving on. There’s just so much information here that I think to plow through it would be a disservice to Calasso’s accomplishment. Reading this book really will give you a completely different perspective on myths you thought you knew.
Thanks so much to JoV and Bina for hosting the Read-A-Myth Challenge! If you have room in your challenge schedule, I think you'll learn a lot from this one!
Since Calasso's treatise is about Greek mythology, and not a retelling of myth, I think it also counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge! Thanks to Jen for hosting.