Roberto Calasso’s book is difficult to categorize. It is about myth and it is also about the gods and heroes who are the subject of myth and what the myths meant to the Greeks then and mean to us now. Sounds like a lot, and it is. Calasso doesn’t move through his subject in a straight line, but wobbles from story to meaning and back. It is an interesting journey and rather long, since we do not go in a straight line.
No sooner have you grabbed hold of it than myth opens out into a fan of a thousand segments. Here the variant is the origin. Everything that happens, happens this way, or that way, or this other way. And in each of these diverging stories all the others are reflected, all brush by us like folds of the same cloth.
The variants don’t contradict, any more than the back of the tapestry contradicts the front of it. The stories are pieces of something bigger, just as the gods are pieces of some bigger power, and all gods — even Zeus — yield to necessity. A friend recently asked me, “Did the Greeks really believe all this, in all these gods?” She asked a reasonable question, but the gods are not reasonable; they just are.
So what did these Greek gods want of men? What they certainly did not require was that we behave one way rather than another. They were as ready to defend the unjust action of a favorite as to condemn the just actions of someone they disliked. So what did they want? To be recognized.
To be recognized. Belief does not come into it. Do you “believe” in the Statue of Liberty? Wrong question: you recognize what it stands for and your recognition comes from your response to its form, how it reaches out and up. The Greeks taught us how to do this, with stunning example after example of their own statues and stories.