Monday, April 6, 2009

Greek Myths for Children and Adults

Last weekend I read The Titan's Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth, books #3 and 4 of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Book #5, the last of the series, is due out in May. Yes, this series is classified under "Children Middle Readers" but I still love it. Let's just say that it releases my inner child.

When I was very young, my dad worked as an editor for McGraw-Hill, in one of their education divisions. Every once in a while he would bring home some of their "new" educational books that they were trying out. I'm not sure if they were just extras or if my sister and I were test subjects. One time he brought home a series of 12 programmed readers. Programmed reading was the rage in the 1960's. I don't know how long it lasted and a lot of people didn't like the idea but I loved it; I could work at my own pace which meant I could work really fast. I've always liked to teach myself. I quickly worked my way through the first 11 of the readers and I rarely went back to look at them again. But the 12th reader was different.

The 12th reader used Greek mythology as the basic text. I read that one over and over, even after I knew all the exercises by heart. My favorite story was Perseus and the Gorgon and I still remember the illustrations.

Perseus is the name of Rick Riordan's hero, but he goes by the shortened version - Percy. Percy is the son of a very cool human mother, but his dad is Poseidon the god of the oceans. Poseidon is also really cool. He wears flip flops and beach shorts and shirts. He doesn't show up much but when he does, he's all powerful. But one cool dude.

Yes, the conceit of the Percy Jackson series is that the Greek gods are real and they still dwell among us. They move around as Western civilization moves around. They still live in Olympus but it's no longer located in the clouds above a Greek mountain; it's in the clouds above the Empire State Building and you can reach it by taking the elevator to the secret 600th floor. Hades can be reached through an office building in Los Angeles. Of course. (It doesn't say it's the Wolfram & Hart building but of course that's what I picture.)

The Greek gods still fall in love with humans and have kids and those kids are still demi-gods and heroes. To learn to control their powers (and to protect them from monsters who want to kill them) they spend their summers at Camp Half-Blood. And they are still subject to prophecies and the jealousy of gods who aren't their parents. It's everything Greek mythology should be.

Reading these books made me think about other versions of Greek myths I've enjoyed. Since this is National Poetry Month I've been thinking about poems. I was reminded of Louise Gluck's book of poems called Averno which features a number of poems about Persephone.

Persephone hasn't been a big character in the main Percy Jackson books (although I think she's been featured in some of the story collections he has written). For those who don't recall, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter the goddess of the harvest. Hades, the god of the underworld, falls in love with her and abducts her. He takes her to the underworld and makes her his wife. Demeter is so angry at the abduction of her daughter that she vows nothing will grow until her daughter is returned to her. Persephone cannot, however, be returned because no one who has eaten anything in the underworld can return to the world above. And Persephone ate seven pomegranite pips. But a deal is struck so that she can return to her mother for six months out of the year. That is the growing season. Then she returns to Hades and winter comes on.

Louise Gluck looks at the myth from several angles. From Persephone the Wanderer:

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth - this is
consistent with what we know of human behavior,

that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation.

In this poem Gluck focuses on what modern scholars focus on - the myth is the story of a rift between the mother and the lover but Persephone is never consulted by either of them about what she wants. And of course modern scholars want to focus on the rape aspect of the story.

Persephone's initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate with her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

My favorite part of the poem is:

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn't know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

Persephone of the myth has no free will, she is, as Gluck says, simply meat to be fought over.

But there are other ways to look at the myth and Gluck does. In her later poem, A Myth of Innocence, Gluck returns to the Persephone story and this time puts herself into Persephone's mind as she looks into the pool remembering the day of her abduction:

The suns seems, in the water, very close.
That's my uncle spying again, she thinks -
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.

No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was. But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her right there,
with her uncle watching. She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.

This Persephone has more free will than the Persephone of the traditional myth. She is not a passive innocent, abducted completely against her will. She participates. And yet is she really choosing?

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.
Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body
. Even, sometimes,
I willed this. But ignorance

cannot will knowledge. Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

Gluck later looks at the role of Hades in the myth in her poem A Myth of Devotion. A Hades, who wanted Persephone and built a special world for her in the underworld. And imagined her there. A Hades who is like all who fall in love with someone they don't really know and try to create a vision of the perfect world they will have together.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn't imagine;
no lover imagines them.

He dreams. He wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end he decides to name it
Persephone's Girlhood.

Finally, Gluck gives us a second version of Persephone the Wanderer in which the focus is not on the daughter who has left, but on the mother who is left behind:

In the second version, Persephone
is dead. She dies, her mother grieves -
problems of sexuality need not
trouble us here.

Compulsively, in grief, Demeter
circles the earth. We don't expect to know
what Persephone is doing.
She is dead, the dead are mysteries.

And the poet wonders why Demeter, the goddess of the earth, of living, growing things who could have had a thousand children, had only one child. Does that mean that the earth (symbolized by Demeter) has no real wish to continue as a source of life? And when Demeter demands the return of her daughter and strikes the deal with Zeus:

Spring will return, a dream
based on a falsehood:
that the dead return.

was used to death. Now over and over
her mother hauls her out again --

you must ask yourself:
are the flowers real? If

Persephone "returns" there will be
one of two reasons:

either she was not dead or
she is being used
to support a fiction

A difficult poem with a lot to think about. But that's true of the Greek myths in general. I'm glad Rick Riordan is introducing a generation of children to the Greek gods and their stories. Maybe some day one of these children will grow up to create their own art out of them.