Presenting the stories of Zeus and Europa, Theseus and Ariadne, the birth of Athens and the fall of Troy, in all their variants, Calasso also uncovers the distant origins of secrets and tragedy, virginity, and rape. "A perfect work like no other. (Calasso) has re-created . . . the morning of our world."--Gore Vidal. 15 engravings.
I'd recommend it to anyone with a taste for Ovid, Homer or Plato. It's a retelling of the myths with a distinctly labyrinthine feel and theme after theme of betrayal, repetition, metamorphosis, sacrifice and innocence amongst others. Crowns and garlands, statues and monstors abound in the fanciful parts alongside some ripping apart of Plato and a knowing take on the Spartans. My only complaint is a reference to 'one foul swoop' but whether this is a slip on the part of the otherwise brilliant author or the otherwise brilliant translator, I don't know.
There is a cheekiness in the writing too, sometimes pulling the reader into the joke sometimes putting the reader in his/her place, so you feel almost at sea, which also features heavily in the book, starting with Europa being carried off by the bull, Zeus.
Back on the shelf it goes now, with lots of corners of pages turned over for dipping into whenever and wherever.
I read this book on the recommendation of a friend commenting on my blog. First published in English in 1993 it’s clearly something I should have picked up before. Or should I? Initially I felt, by turns, beguiled, exploited, delighted and even insulted. It seemed to me, before I was very far in, to be moving between the profound and the whimsical across the space of a single page. I was not sure whether I regarded it as an insightful interpretation of Greek mythology or a comic-book vision of the gods. I also felt that I should actually be reading Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, not just because it is usually better to read things in their original language but because it felt like a very Italian text even via the American English into which it has been translated. I was reminded of the style of Ripellino in his Praga Magica. Perhaps ‘style’ is the best way to approach a description of the book. Its originality of presentation of the gods owes everything to its style. The way things are said is as significant as what is said. Once I had accommodated myself to that I began to enjoy it.
And there is much to enjoy. There was a time when Cadmus and Harmony could get married at Thebes and the gods would come to the wedding. But since then they have withdrawn, to Olympus and further off. The Golden Age and its dissolution through Silver to Iron and Bronze is chronicled here with as much élan as could be wished for. But those stretches of apparent frivolity, crystallize into some cameos which are worth reading the book for in themselves:
Dionysus is not a useful god who helps weave or knot things together, but a god who loosens and unties. The weavers are his enemies. Yet there comes a moment when the weavers will leave their looms and dash off after him into the mountains. Dionysus is the river we hear flowing by in the distance, an incessant booming from far away; then one day it rises and floods everything, as if the normal above-water state of things, the sober delimitation of our existence, were but a brief parenthesis overwhelmed in an instant.
This is brilliant stuff and brings the gods alive in a way that other works rarely do. If I consider how else readers of English might gain an understanding of these gods, I suppose the comprehensive text that would be referred to is Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. Graves is himself often whimsical and irreverent, but compared to Calasso his is a mere reference book, and one than can itself deceive by appearing to be so definitive when he is, of course, as liable to be arbitrary in his interpretations and definitions as is Calasso. But with the Italian it is all on the surface, part of appearance, as he himself defines one aspect of the gods. Besides, this is a book to be read through; Graves’ two volumes sit on the reference shelf to be consulted rather than followed as narrative.
I must, finally, comment on the presentation of the relationship between Odysseus and Athena. I found it epiphanic. I’ll resist the temptation to quote from it as it’s the sort of thing best discovered rather than isolated from its context. And here I have to concede that the apparently arbitrary way that Calasso throws in brief paragraphs of information between longer stretches of narrative and illustration, creating an apparently disjointed structure, as if wondering where this bit or that bit can best be fitted in, is not so whimsical after all. He has created a form that is disconcertingly effective, encompassing the many contradictions which can thwart the task of description and casting light, sometimes directly but often elliptically on his subjects. "In the beginning was the word" says the christian text. In Calasso's view, for the gods, it was more like the end. Except that his words attempt to reclaim them as the only way to lead an interesting life
While Hamilton and Bulfinch are accessible, and goes down smooth, Calasso's writing is hard to swallow, but hits you like a freight train. In his book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, he takes you, the reader, on an epic journey across the whole of Greek Mythology, from the creation of creation to the early vestiges of paganism that shot off from it.
This book is a must have for any student of Greco-Roman Mythology, as Calasso has done most of the hard work for you, pouring through myth after myth and refining the results for you to consume in more readily digestible chunks (though, not quite as digestible as those in Hamilton or Bulfinch).
The writing is very dry at times, but that does not mean it is not worth reading. In fact, the dry prose gives more life to these ancient tales of gods and heroes. It gives them an air of realism, written as if they actually roamed the earth.
If you seek one volume to summarize an ancient religion, I would highly recommend it be this one. You may need to get volumes written by other authors to better understand what you read there, but it is definitely an indispensable resource for your mythological studies.
I don't care who you are or how much you've read, Calasso will amaze you with his erudition.
And it is also a discursion on the literature which uses or, more commonly, develops these myths and creates new ones. So there are perceptive insights on Homer or the dramatists and even Nonnus whom otherwise one would avoid.
Endorsements on the back matter can be daunting. How do we explain our struggles or indifference with work which is lauded so many which we admire? Half way through this, I was south of neutral and growing impatient. Abandonment was an option. The work then slid out from under its treatment of Athenian mythography and constructed a comparison with the practices and beliefs of Persia, Sparta and Egypt. I did and do find that fascinating. The divine practices of rape and reproduction are sufficient cause for us to be recalled as a species back to the plant. I do not as rule become excited by myth or tale. Such informs my struggles. This is a ridiculously erudite book. I am sure it won't be my last Calasso as I have a stack to tackle in the future.
and lyric poets of the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds, and Homer. There's no plan! Some Gods are described as children of gods who, elsewhere are described as the fathers of the same Gods. Into what is often an Escher-like set of Genealogies, a conflicting set of actions, and confused power relationships , Robert Colasso plunges, and manges, very cleverly, to produce a set of meditations on this canon. His scholarship is deep, and in my mind at least, he manages to create a set of explanations and interactions that may have occurred in the minds of a very clever and well read mythographer of the later Roman Empire. Do not look for a connected narrative here, but the modern reader will come away with a fuller appreciation of what the classical mindset could contain. This is not a book for a single reading, but a keeper and consultation fountain. Bravo!
As an examination of the well-spring of western moral and religious thought, this is superb. All the Greek myths are dissected with great erudition, and their contribution to western thought simply and clearly examined without losing the enthusiasm for the myths themselves. It is not a dry, intellectual book, though it is not an lazy read. You will be challenged by it, but the rewards are immense.
We can lose track of what underpins our culture and our sensibilities and it illuminates our experience of life, especially the creative forms, to be reminded as sharply as Calasso does here.