Daisy Dunn

The Violence of Myth

I grew up reading the Greek myths. Every birthday or Christmas another compilation would arrive, full of stories – and often pictures – of creatures with human heads and horse-like bodies, one-eyed giants, and nymphs with the most beautiful hair I had ever seen. At bedtime I would listen to Andrew Sachs describing the marvels of King Minos’s palace on Crete until the cassette clicked stop. I longed for more.

Although many of the stories had unhappy endings, I never had nightmares, for it was their otherworldliness that gripped me most. The chance of encountering a chimaera on the school bus seemed incredibly remote. As Virginia Woolf once said of reading ancient Greek, ‘the meaning is just on the far side of language’. Even where their moral was obvious, and their characters somehow familiar, the myths seemed similarly to hover on the verge of obscurity.

What was missing from the versions I read as a child, however, was the violence of the originals. If the world of the myths was tantalizingly foreign, then its violence was both real and extreme. ‘I wish I could eat you myself’, barks Achilles to Hector as he spears him to death in Homer’s Iliad, ‘that the fury in my heart would drive me to cut you in pieces and eat your flesh raw, for all that you have done to me’. Had I encountered a line like this from Martin Hammond’s translation of the poem as a child, my dreams would no doubt have been darker.

Assembling my own anthology of 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome (in the English translations of a diverse range of writers) brought home just how brutal the earliest tales were. Bowdlerised from my childhood collections were countless acts of patricide, fratricide, rape, and human sacrifice. Just as the Greeks imagined they were descended from the warriors who ravaged Troy, so the Romans revered Romulus, who in the myth murdered his twin brother Remus at the foundation of Rome. The ancient world might have been more dreamlike without them, but these were the acts upon which it was founded. They cannot be ignored forever.

My anthology is an adult version of the kind of story books I enjoyed as a child. While many of the stories it contains are suitable for children, it was adult readers I had in mind as I sorted through the often dark and unsettling stories which the ancients told themselves. Some of these may well have been familiar to the children of ancient Greece, who grew up surrounded by pottery painted with graphic scenes of murder and sex, but sensibilities change. I wanted to reawaken in adults the excitement they might also have felt upon discovering the myths for the first time, but to reveal the ancient world to them in all its shades.

There are many stories of love. Daphnis and Chloe, the young protagonists of a Greek novel of the late second or early third century AD, seek to discover what love is – and what lovers do. In George Thornley’s seventeenth-century translation: ‘And, what is Love (quoth Chloe then)? Is he a boy, or is he a bird?’ W. H. Auden knew his classics. On discovering the art of lovemaking, Daphnis finds himself too afraid of harming Chloe to put it into practice, knowing that ‘no blood could follow but onely from a wound’.

There was logic to Daphnis’s thinking. Love was born of a wound. The story goes that Aphrodite rose from the sea foam into which the severed genitals of her father, Ouranos (the Heavens), had been thrown by the son he despised. Blood from that wound gave life to a number of other divinities besides.   

The violent origins of Aphrodite helped to explain why love was so painful and raw. Love was savage because it was born of savagery. It was through Aphrodite’s machinations that Helen of Sparta came to abscond with Paris and spark the beginning of the Trojan War. The same goddess inspired an unnatural passion in Phaedra for her stepson Hippolytus. In Euripides’s tragedy, the stepmother is driven mad by her feelings for the boy, and commits suicide, leaving a note in which she falsely accuses him of raping her, thereby ensuring that he meets his comeuppance for spurning the goddess of love.

Just occasionally Cupid, son of Aphrodite, experienced lovesickness for himself. In his unparalleled translation of the story of Cupid and Psyche, Walter Pater described the winged Cupid bruised by his own arrow and ‘lying in the chamber of his mother, heart-sick’. Love’s arrow draws blood and drains its victim of all ability to reason. 

Cupid’s arrows might have been unique to him, but there were other divinities who used similarly stinging barbs to punish gods and men. In a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the chaste goddess Diana ‘wished that her arrows were ready to hand’ when she was spied bathing in the woods by a young hunter named Actaeon. Naked, she ‘used what she could’, as translator David Raeburn renders it, ‘caught up some water and threw it into/ the face of the man.’ Steadily Actaeon metamorphosed into a stag. His own dogs mauled him to death.

One shudders to calculate the volume of blood shed across the corpus of classical literature. Yet for poets such as Samuel Butler, who translated Homer’s Odyssey in 1900, the bloodiest episodes often yielded the most visual and exciting passages in English. And so Odysseus recounts how the Cyclops, Polyphemus, terrorised him in his cave:

…with a sudden clutch he gripped up two of my men at once and dashed them down upon the ground as though they had been puppies. Their brains were shed upon the ground, and the earth was wet with their blood. Then he tore them limb from limb and supped upon them. He gobbled them up like a lion in the wilderness, flesh, bones, marrow, and entrails, without leaving anything uneaten.

On returning home from Troy, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, is confronted by his wife Clytemnestra, who delights in spilling his blood after he spilled that of their daughter, Iphigenia, to secure a favourable wind for his voyage. Squeamishness was not an ancient virtue. Louis Macneice translated Aeschylus’s Agamemnon with a fascination with Clytemnestra’s blood lust:    

I deal him the third blow to the God beneath the earth,

To the safe keeper of the dead a votive gift,

And with that he spits his life out where he lies

And smartly spouting blood he sprays me with

The sombre drizzle of bloody dew and I

Rejoice no less than in Gods gift of rain

The crops are glad when the ear of corn gives birth.

Ancient storytellers found the dramatic potential in placing a weapon in a woman’s hands and having her wield it against members of her own family. But they also recognised that a violent urge flowed through their history and through their blood. It was present when they hated and it was present when they loved. It had been there from the moment Aphrodite rose from the foam that frothed on the open sea.

Daisy Dunn’s anthology of classical stories, Of Gods and Men, will be published in paperback on 8 December by Head of Zeus.

Daisy Dunn is a writer, classist and cultural critic. She is the author of In the Shadow of Versuvius: A Life of Pliny (2019) and Not Far from Brideshead: Oxford between the Wars – a classicist’s portrait of the university city. 

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