Written by: Stephen Fry
Published by: Penguin
ISBN 13: 9781405934138
The first book that I finished reading in 2020 was Mythos by Stephen Fry, and I have just started to read the follow up to that book, Heroes.
I sped through the first volume, totally absorbed by this retelling of well-known tales of chaos and creation, Olympian gods and goddesses, and some foolhardy humans.
Early on, we learn that Kronos (later the father of Zeus) is instigated by his mother Gaia to kill his father Ouranos which he does by castrating him and throwing his genitals across the ocean. Zeus is in turn instigated by his mother Rhea to kill his father Kronos for swallowing up her five older children at their births. I mean, c’mon, this is better than any episode of Days Of Our Lives!
Apart from the inherent drama in Greek mythology, Stephen Fry’s storytelling is brimming with his noted wit and personality. His prose is peppered with up-to-date imagined dialogue and cultural references (just short of a mention of BTS, and much better than I can ((see Days Of Our Lives reference)).
Now, Kronos (or Cronus as he sometimes styled himself) was not quite the pained and vulnerable emo-like youth that Rhea’s and Tartarus’s descriptions may have led us to picture, for he was the strongest of an unimaginably strong race. He was darkly handsome, certainly; and yes, he was moody. Had Kronos the examples to go by, he would perhaps have identified with Hamlet at his most introspective, or Jaques at his most self-indulgently morbid. Konstantin from The Seagull with a suggestion of Morrissey. Yet there was something of a Macbeth in him too and more than a little Hannibal Lecter – as we shall see.
The other entertaining aspect of Mythos is where the author shows us the Greek origins of many words and concepts found in the English language. Many English speakers would be familiar with phrases such as “Sisphyean task” and “Herculean strength”, and those terms make a direct reference to their origins in Greek mythology. But even commonly used words such as chronic, echo, atlas, and erotic are only one degree of separation away from their namesakes in the Greek pantheon.
The Greeks had at least four words for love:
AGAPE – this was the great and generous kind that we would describe as ‘charity’ and which could refer to any holy kind of love, such as parents for their children or the love of worshippers for their god.
EROS – the strain of love named after the god, or after whom the god is named. The kind that gets us into most trouble. So much more than affectionate, so much less than spiritual, eros and the erotic can lead us to glory and to disgrace, to the highest pitch of happiness and the deepest pit of despair.
PHILIA – the form of love applied to friendship, partiality and fondness. We see its traces in words like ‘francophile’, ‘necrophilia’ and ‘philanthropy’.
STORGE – the love and loyalty someone might have for their country or their sports team could be regarded as storgic.
Admittedly that last word storgic is a little obscure.
After finishing the book I remembered that I had two similar books in my collection.
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves is an academic volume, for dipping into, with footnotes and detailed references, several maps, and an index. In the edition that I have, it’s been updated by the edition of an introduction written by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of books.
Oh My Gods by Philip Freeman falls somewhere between the other two books in tone, far more readable end-to-end than The Greek Myths.