Stephen Fry

Mythos

“The arc of the Greek myths follows the rise of mankind, our battle to free ourselves from the interference of the gods - their abuse, their meddling, their tyranny over human life and civilization.”

“I loved mythology” confessed the singularly imaginative Jorge Luis Borges, whose own Book of Imaginary Beings captures centuries of inventiveness.

We create stories and characters to turn experience into knowledge. We retell stories as knowledge (and at times lose sight of the story). Stephen Fry’s Mythos returns us to story.

Mythos begins at the beginning, but it does not end at the end…. I am only concerned with telling the stories, not with explaining them or investigating the human truths or psychological insights that may lie behind them. The myths are fascinating enough with all their disturbing, surprising, romantic, comic, tragic, violent and enchanting detail to stand on their own as stories.

Design for a memorial to Keats, "Fates Seizing Keats," by Joseph Severn, 1822. Featured in John Keats' "Selected Letters" in The Examined Life Library.
Design for a memorial to Keats, “Fates Seizing John Keats,” by Joseph Severn, 1822. Fry writes: “The three Moirai, or Fates, were named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. I picture them as sunken-cheeked crones, clothed in black rags.” © Harvard University

With love, respect and a witty eye to human and divine hypocrisy, Fry delivers a pleasurable repackaging of the myths you’ve read and been read.1

From formless Chaos sprang two creations: Erebus and Nyx. Erebus, he was darkness, and Nyx, she was night. They coupled at once and the flashing fruits of their union were Hemera, day, and Aether, light.

At the same time – because everything must happen simultaneously until Time is there to separate events – Chaos brought forth two more entities: Gaia, the earth, and Tartarus, the depths and caves beneath the earth. I can guess what you might be thinking. These creation sound charming enough – Day, Night, Light, Depths and Caves. But these were not gods and goddesses, they were not even personalities. And it may have struck you also that since there was no time there could be no dramatic narrative, no stories; for stories depend on Once Upon a Time and What Happened Next.

You would be right to think this.[…] The silent emptiness of the world was filled when Gaia bore two sons all on her own. Pontus the sea and Ouranos the sky.

Before long Gaia plots against Uauranos with her son Kronos; Kronos forms a sloven relationship with his sister/wife Rhea who ultimately plots against him with their son Zeus… and once and for all the Gods triumph and take their place on Mount Olympus and form man, animal and everything else we know.

“This world,’ Zeus went on… “is quite extraordinarily beautiful. Everything in its place – rivers, mountains, birds, beasts, oceans, groves, plains and canyons… But you know, when I look down, I find myself sorrowing at how empty it is. Oh Prometheus, you have absolutely no idea how boring it is to be a god in a complete and finished world.’

‘Boring?’

‘Yes, boring. for some time I’ve realized that I’m bored and I’m lonely. I mean “lonely” in the larger sense. In the cosmic sense. I am cosmically lonely. Is this how it’s going to be for ever and ever now? Me on a throne on Olympus, thunderbolt on lap, while everyone bows and scrapes, sings praises and begs favours? In perpetuity. Where’s the fun in that?’

‘Well…’

‘Be honest, you’d hate it too.’

Prometheus compressed his lips and thought for a while. It is true that he had never envied his friend the imperial throne and all its bothers and burdens.

‘Suppose,’ said Zeus, ‘suppose I were to start a new race… A new order of beings. Like us in every particular, upright, on two legs…’

‘One head?’

‘One head. two hands. Resembling us in every particular and they would have – you’re the intellectual, Prometheus, what’s the word for that aspect of us that raises us above the animals?’

‘Our hands?’

‘No, the part that tells us that we exist, that makes us aware of ourselves?’

‘Consciousness?’

‘That’s the one.’

"Prometheus Bound" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618. Featured in Stephen Fry's "Mythos" in the Examined Life Library.
“Prometheus Bound” by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618. Learn more. “We have to remember,” Fry reminds us “What Prometheus stole was fire from heaven, divine fire. Perhaps he took the inner spark that ignited in man the curiosity to rub sticks and strike flints in the first place.” Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Very quickly characters develop enough attributes to advance beyond the telling of the tale, we might say the drama becomes “character-driven.”

Fry’s personal fancy springs to life. On Hera, the Queen of the Heavens:

Fate and posterity have been unkind to the Queen of Heaven. Unlike Aphrodite or Gaia she has no planet named in her honour, and she must bear the burden of a reputation that portrays her as more reactive than active – reactive always to the errant infidelities of her husband-brother Zeus. It is easy to dismiss Hera as a tyrant and a bore… but, ambitious, snobbish, conservatively protective of the hierarchy and impatient of originality and flair as she certainly was – Hera was never a bore. The force and resolution with which she faced up to a god who could disintegrate her with one thunderbolt shows self-belief as well as courage.

I am very found of her and, while I’m sure I would stammer, blush, and swallow awkwardly in her presence, she finds in me a devoted admirer. She gave the gods gravity, heft and the immeasurable gift of what the Romans called auctoriatas.2

It is neither the story nor the retelling that grabs us today, it is that somehow, over a period of thousands of years, the same human qualities shunned and rewarded in Greece are consistent with those we hold dear in Western politics and philosophy today; Namely, the individual against a totalitarian state.3

The arc of the Greek myths follows the rise of mankind, our battle to free ourselves from the interference of the gods – their abuse, their meddling, their tyranny over human life and civilization.

Sisyphus is the best example. As punishment for wicked ways, Sisyphus is condemned to death twice but outwits the gods and wins a long life of contentment. Upon his natural death, however, Sisyphus is made to roll a boulder up a mountain until it falls, he tries again…you might as well imagine him doing it still.4

"Sisyphus", 1548 by Titian. Featured in Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus" in the Examined Life Library
Titian’s “Sisyphus”, 1548. The artist’s choice to depict the tragic hero carrying (rather than pushing) the boulder certain heightens the drama and our empathy. Learn more. Source: Museo del Prado

There is so much more to [Sisyphus] than the famous stone he is doomed endlessly and fruitlessly to push uphill. Sisyphus was a wicked, greedy, duplicitous and often cruel man, but who cannot find something appealing – heroic even – in the unquenchable zest and fist-shaking defiance with which he lived (in fact out-lived) his life? Few mortals dared to try the patience of the gods in so reckless a fashion.

Fry’s enthusiasm spills into the margins – Kronos, Athena, Hera, Persephone, the Cycladis and Melissa and Tantalus… I imagine our author with a giant whiteboard, names, family trees, symbols… rearranging their preposterous stories in furious passion.5

We live in a reason-dominated era so it will seem fanciful that anyone ever believed in things like an underworld; “No one believes that Hephaestus ever truly existed…” Fry reminds us.

Then again what does it say about us that we have lost the ability to see a molten volcano and imagine it is the result of a divine being in an underground forge with a passion for metallurgy?

But I for one, would never want to lose that originality, that divine fire of wonder and invention of a story in which Hephaestus could exist.

Stephen Fry