Reading Edith Hamilton‘s Mythology is an exercise of one’s horror muscles. In ancient mythology, awful things happen to moderately good people, except there are no purely good people.
Greek mythology has plenty of heroes, each one of whom makes a contemporary reader shudder at least a few times. OK, here’s an heroic act and, oh geez, here’s that same hero hacking up his nearest and dearest for hazy reasons usually involving a god’s command.
The ancient gods are vengeful, jealous pieces of ex machina shit. No wonder the Romans gave themselves up to a single god who was reputed to be so much nicer than Jove and his crazy family. Monotheism is a lot easier to live with on a day-to-day basis.
Maybe these are not the best stories to read late at night before I go to sleep.
(Tangentially, I’ve recently discovered a concomitant problem watching international cop series on MhZ and, previously, Netflix: I don’t like morally compromised lead cops, a/k/a what passes for heroes in the world of streaming services. All I ask is one detective who is not in mortal combat with his/her ex, not in bed with some local gangster, not implausibly ignorant of what borderline criminality his/her nasty teenage kid is getting up to. Just give me a detective who solves the fucking crime.)
(By the way, in the last three cop series I’ve been watching, two lead detectives have had brain tumors and surgery which may or may not be entirely successful. In the current series, the lead detective has been holding her head in pain. What’s the deal here? The three series come from three different countries — Sweden, France and Portugal — yet their protagonists all have brain tumors???)
I bring you one last tale of Theseus.
I so want Theseus to be more than an ancient Greek myth. I want the myth to be drawn by a storyteller from shreds of a tale about a real man. Because who other than a real man could behave as Theseus does? He is so singular in his character — a pragmatic democrat years before democracy was a gleam in anyone’s eye — no other figure approaches him.
I’ve learned some scholars believe a real man upon whom Theseus was based might have lived possibly as a king in the 8th or 9th century BCE. The late Bronze Age, a long, long, long time ago.
Still, he and his ideals live among us today. As evidence, here is Edith Hamilton’s re-telling of an incident in Theseus’s life:
Adrastus…came to Theseus, King of Athens, to beseech him to induce the Thebans to allow the bodies to be buried. With him were the mothers and the sons of the dead men. “All we seek,” he told Theseus, “is burial for our dead. We come to you for help, because Athens of all cities is compassionate.”
“I will not be your ally,” Theseus answered. “You led your people against Thebes. The war was of your doing, not hers.”
But Aethra, Theseus’ mother, to whom those other sorrowing mothers had first turned, was bold to interrupt the two Kings. “My son,” she said, “may I speak for your honor and for Athens?”
“Yes, speak,” he answered and listened intently while she told him what was in her mind.
“You are bound to defend all who are wronged,” she said. “These men of violence who refuse the dead their right of burial, you are bound to compel them to obey the law. It is sacred through all Greece. What holds our states together and all states everywhere, except this, that each one honors the great laws of right?”
“Mother,” Theseus cried, “these are true words. Yet of myself I cannot decide the matter. For I have made this land a free state with an equal vote for all. If the citizens consent, then I will go to Thebes.”
Theseus summons an assembly of the people, who vote to “to tell the Thebans that Athens wished to be a good neighbor, but that she could not stand by and see a great wrong done.”
A herald from Thebes now appears and asks
“Who is the master here, the lord of Athens? I bring a message to him from the master of Thebes.”
“You seek one who does not exist,” Theseus answered. “There is no master here. Athens is free. Her people rule.”
“That is well for Thebes,” the herald cried. “Our city is not governed by a mob which twists this way and that, but by one man. How can the ignorant crowd wisely direct a nation’s course?”
“We in Athens,” Theseus said, “write our own laws and then are ruled by them. We hold there is no worse enemy to a state than he who keeps the law in his own hands. This great advantage then is ours, that our land rejoices in all her sons who are strong and powerful by reason of their wisdom and just dealing. But to a tyrant such are hateful. He kills them, fearing they will shake his power.
Heroes and tyrants.
Now I’ll check the Times front page to see what is happening today.