Greek myths shed light on our modern world

Paul OMahony

51243451 300x240 Greek myths shed light on our modern worldGreece is where it all began and it looks increasingly likely that it’ll be where it all ends as well. Shelley memorably said that we are all Greeks, and it is undeniably true that here in the West we owe an enormous debt to the Greeks. Coincidentally, they now owe an enormous debt to us and that has made Greece once again the centre of the world. As details have emerged over the last few months about the state of the Greek tax system and their maybe-not-entirely-accurate accounts on entry into the Euro, lots of people have expressed outrage and shock that this could have happened. But should we really be that surprised? Didn’t they give us ample warning? After all, it’s all written down in those old stories of theirs…

One of the greatest of all the Greek heroes was Odysseus – a man so famous he’s even got his own poem. He was admiringly referred to as ‘wily’ and ‘full of plans.’ But let’s be frank, he was a liar – a mad, deceitful, compulsive liar who ended up getting all of his soldiers killed whilst he frolicked with nymphs and witches.

Granted, the wooden horse was a great idea – and as we’ve discovered recently the Greeks aren’t averse to entering an institution under false pretences – but what sort of mind could possibly have come up with it? The mind of a man who would proceed to disguise himself from his own family after being away for 20 years so that he could test their loyalty and check whether his wife had been faithful. The double standards alone are shocking enough (see nymphs and witches), but what about the psychological manipulation involved? You’ve been away for 20 years man! But lying was part of Odysseus’s heroism – the Greeks were never too fussed about having perfect heroes. And clearly, if Odysseus is your hero you’re not going to worry too much about putting a positive spin on the accounts.

But the Greek myths don’t just shed light on modern day Greece – they illuminate the whole world. The global financial crisis was created by a brand new banking breed of Midases, all of them hungry for gold. Midas was a king who did one good deed and was rewarded by the god Apollo who told him he would grant him one wish. What would Midas choose: world peace? An end to hunger? An Olympics that was delivered on budget? No. He wished that everything he touched would turn into gold. EVERYTHING. This included his daughter, as well as all the food he tried to eat. Not a smart move. The gods had to step in and revoke his wish, but not before the damage was already done…

There are further warnings from the past. We constantly worry nowadays about conservation – preserving the planet and its natural wonders for future generations. It is unbearably sad to think that our grandchildren may never see a panda bear (although I do think pandas are a bit overrated – how can one animal sleep for so long? They do nothing! And if they don’t want to have sex, well, you just can’t force it can you?), and it is awful to think of young people growing up in this century who may never witness the many beautiful animals this world has to offer. Well, that didn’t bother those ancient Greek heroes much did it? When’s the last time you caught David Attenborough narrating glorious high-definition footage of a Chimaera battling to the death with a Hydra? That’s right, never: because Bellerophon and Heracles got there first. In fact, Heracles must be responsible for the extinction of more species than any man before or since. If Disney’s Hercules had been in Disney’s Lion King then it would have been a very different film (and highly unlikely to get a ‘U’ certificate).

But the Greeks had the right idea. Their heroes had faults – plenty of them – but they didn’t have it all their own way. Yes Heracles was an eco-warrior’s worst nightmare, but he also died in excruciating pain wearing a poisoned cloak given to him by his wife. Odysseus must have sailed further than Dame Ellen MacArthur in his quest to make it home, and Midas ended up hungry and alone, with his ears replaced with those of an ass. If only we could mete out similar punishment to those who were foolish enough to think that everything they touched would turn to gold this time round.

The terrible problems that afflict Western culture today were woven into the myths of the people who gave us that culture in the first place. They really knew what was what those ancient Greeks – so maybe the solutions are in there too.

Paul’s show ‘Unmythable’ will be on 3-27 August @ 13.45 at the Zoo venues, Edinburgh Festival

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  • bersih2012 min


  • Jane Richards

    ‘Tongue in cheek’, but not too far ‘off’!

  • Fritz Schiller

    May you clarify the following text in your article: “They really knew what was what those ancient Greeks – so maybe the solutions are in there too.” Perhaps because I am learning English I do not understand what you mean with that text. Thank You!

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