Mythos (2017)

The Greek myths retold by Stephen Fry

Mythos is a quirky, entertaining, and fairly superficial retelling of (some) ancient Greek myths. If you want more, you have to look elsewhere.

Josho Brouwers

In his foreword to Mythos, actor, comedian, and author Stephen Fry explains that he wrote the book especially for “those who may never have encountered the characters and stories of Greek myth before”, adding that no foreknowledge is necessary, since “it starts with an empty universe”. He further explains that “There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human” (p. vii).

Clearly, I’m not the intended audience for this book. Aside from having studied Greek mythology in an academic setting, I have also written a book about the topic myself and, of course, have written about Classical mythology frequently on this website and elsewhere. To suggest that there’s “nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology” is rather cheeky: no doubt Fry is here taking aim at those critics who would dismiss Mythos as superficial entertainment; popcorn, rather than a proper meal.

Perhaps in this light we should also devote not too much time to some of the rather old-fashioned notions regarding the Greeks and their myths that Fry sets out in the remainder of his foreword. To Fry, the myths are known primarily from the surviving literature; there’s no room here for scenes known from only from art, nor is much attention paid to oral traditions. The Greeks are singled out as unique, as special, even while Fry emphasizes the universal nature of the stories. As he puts it (p. ix):

The Greeks created gods that were in their image: warlike but creative, wise but ferocious, loving but jealous, tender but brutal, compassionate but vengeful.

Of course, the exact same thing could be said about the gods of pretty much any (ancient) culture. The Sumerians, too, created gods in their own image. Indeed, it was the ancient philosopher Xenophanes (ca. 570-ca. 475 BC) who said that if cattle, horses, or lions had hands or could paint they would have gods that looked like themselves and would create works that were similar to what humans produced (frr. 15-16).

In any event, the aim of Mythos is to retell the Greek myths with an emphasis on the stories involving the gods. The many stories involving heroes such as Heracles or the Theban and Trojan Wars, fall outside of Stephen Fry’s remit. No doubt, these stories will feature in the sequel – Heros? – that seems all but inevitable.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The book, which weirdly lacks a table of contents as well as an index, is divided into two parts: “The Beginning” and “The Toys of Zeus”, which are in turn each divided into two further parts. In the first part of “The Beginning” (p. 1), the story starts with the creation of the world out of Chaos. In between explaining how the ancient Greeks conceived of Chaos, Fry adds a few factoids gleaned from modern science: the Big Bang naturally makes a cameo appearance and we are briefly told what entropy is.

The next chapter dutiful retell the creation of the earliest gods (“The First Order”), like Nyx (the Night), Hemera (the Day), Gaia (Earth), and other primordial deities. A footnote helpfully explains what parthenogenesis is and I cannot help but wonder if the book was written for readers who have had no education at all, let alone a classical education. In “The Second Order”, we are introduced to the children of Gaia and Ouranos (Sky), and the birth of the next generation of gods, who would become known as the Titans (pp. 7-24).

Recently, contributor Matthew Lloyd tweeted that he avoids reading novels written by men on account of how they tend to write about women. I couldn’t help but think of this when I happened across this passage in the book where Kronos returns to Rhea after having castrated his father, Ouranos, with a sickle (p. 25):

When he arrived on Mount Othrys, Kronos found his sister Rhea waiting for him. The sight of her darkly handsome brother, a huge sickle dripping blood in his hand, thrilled her to the point of internal explosion.

Internal explosion, eh? In any event, the remainder of this chapter deals with the birth of Kronos’ children (pp. 25-39), and how Kronos ate all of them save one, Zeus, who was kept safe on Crete. Using a ruse, he managed to have his father regurgitate his swallowed brothers and sisters. Curious is the final statement: Zeus and his siblings “would not, despite their parentage, call themselves ‘Titans’. They would be gods. And not just gods, but the gods” (p. 39; original emphasis). The Titans were gods, too, and when they ruled they were the gods.

In any event, the first chapter of the second part of “The Beginning” (p. 41), is unhelpfully and unoriginally entitled “Clash of the Titans”. It deals with the battle between the Titans, who had their base of operations on Mount Othrys, and Zeus and his siblings. A footnote has a rare reference to ancient sources on p. 43: Hesiod is mentioned in connection to the Titanomachy, as is the lost work of Eumelos.

In trying to weave a coherent tale out of the fairly inconsistent source material, the book sometimes reads more like a collection of brief sketches. The Titanomachy is interrupted with an excursion into rising complexity after the emergence of Chaos (which doesn’t seem to fit anywhere; pp. 45-46) and an account of each of the individual Muses (pp. 45-50), complete with references to Shakespeare’s Henry V and Monty Python, the Charites, Horai, and Moirai, Keres and Gorgons (pp. 50-52), and finally the “spirits of air, earth, and water” (pp. 53-54).

I don’t quite understand why the flow of the story had to be interrupted to inform us that the Greeks had a wealth of minor deities and spirits before continuing, on p. 54, the tale of the Titanomachy. In the next chapter, “The Third Order” (p. 58), the gods who would soon become known as the Olympians (p. 68) have established themselves. Fry then gives a rundown of the different gods: Hestia, Hades, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hera (pp. 58-67).

Oddly, we are then briefly treated to the births of Hepheastus and Ares, the marriage of Hephaestus to Aphrodite, the birth of Athena, Artemis, Apollo, and Dionysos (pp. 68-112). It’s all a little messy, but that’s no doubt part of the point here. In any event, with the gods in place, everything seems set. The chapter closes out with these lines:

Something is missing. Something… he [Zeus] frowns and thinks. Suddenly a great lightning bolt stabs down from the sky and strikes the ground, sending up a violent puff of smoke and burnt dust.

“Don’t do that dear,” says Hera.

But Zeus isn’t listening. He has an idea.

And so we move to the second half of the book, “The Toys of Zeus”, which is again itself subdivided into two parts. In the first part (p. 113), Zeus and Prometheus set out to create a new species. From their “kneading and firing” (p. 119) was born the human race, which consisted of only men. As Zeus explains, “You can imagine what Hera would say otherwise” (p. 119).

The description of how Prometheus modelled human figures out of every sort of coloured clay imagineable, including purple, blue, and green, is, as far as I can tell, wholly a fabrication on Fry’s part. As is Zeus accidentally trampling all but the “black, brown, ivory, yellow, reddish and what have you” figures and then, uncharacteristically, bowing “his head in meek apology” (p. 122). Make of that what you will.

Of course, some ancient sources, such as Hesiod, claim that the first humans lived in a period when Cronus (Kronos) rather than Zeus ruled the world. In any event, we are next treated to a retelling of how Prometheus brought mankind fire (pp. 127-130). In the next chapter, “The Punishments”, Zeus is set to punish Prometheus and the humans. He does so by creating Pandora, the world’s first woman and the source of mankind’s ills (up to p. 137). If you think this is misogynistic, you’re right, and it would have been good of Fry if he had pointed this out.

The remainder of this chapter is largely a disjointed collection of tales, including the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha (pp. 137-141), an aside on Thanatos, the personification of death (pp. 142-145), and the binding of Prometheus (pp. 145-148). The next chapter deals mostly with the story of Hades and Persephone (pp. 149-156), followed by a lengthier chapter on Cupid and Psyche (pp. 157-186).

The second part of “The Toys of Zeus” (p. 187) is perhaps the hardest to enjoy, since there are so many little stories here, with little attempt at creating overarching themes. In other words: it’s a bit of a slog. There’s a chapter on “Hubris”, but, curiously, the story of Tantalus isn’t found there. We get lots of small(ish) chapters, the first of which deals with two stories, one about Io (pp. 189-193) and one about Erechtheus (pp. 193-195).

Other chapters deal with “Phaeton” (pp. 196-209), Cadmus (pp. 210-229), Semele and her son Dionysus (pp. 230-243), a treatment of Actaeon and Erysichthon (pp. 244-249), and so on, ending with the legends about King Midas (pp. 384-394).

Time to put a lid on it

The book features a few appendices (pp. 395-401), which deal with Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, the hope left at the bottom of Pandora’s jar, the Gigantomachy, and ancient Greek measurements. These discussions are often frustratingly vague: “For some”, “Others have maintained”, “one account tells”. If there was any place to add some references, this would have been it. Sadly, we are left entirely in the dark, save a rare reference to Nietszsche or another author.

In the afterword (pp. 402-410), Fry deals briefly with the choices he’s made in the text, noting specifically that his version of the “Ages of Man” differs deliberately from that given by Hesiod, which he feels entitled to do. As he explains (p. 402):

If anyone tells me that I have got the stories “wrong” I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions. In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths. In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.

To which I would reply, sure, but then don’t subtitle your book “The Greek myths retold”. Call it something else, like “The Greek myths reimagined”. But for the most part, the stories stick fairly close to the original sources, save the modernistic bent that Fry has often infused them with.

The remainder of the afterword deals with the connections between myth, legend, and religion. Fry, an atheist, suggests that “Most of those who told and retold the myths would have been aware, I think, at some level of their consciousness, that they were telling fictional tales. They might have thought the world was once peoples with nymphs and monsters, but they could be fairly certain that such beings no longer existed” (p. 404). This seems dubious to me, as I’ve tried to explain elsewhere.

Fry spends a few more words to tell us that the Greeks aren’t special though perhaps they were (pp. 404-405) before giving a perfunctory explanation that ancient Greece encompassed more than the modern country of Greece (pp. 405-406). He next gives a very brief rundown of the ancient sources (pp. 406-407), before turning to the “modern” ones (pp. 408-409), listing not a single title that was published after 1967, with the exception of the website, which gets a full paragraph of its own.

There are two sections with colour photos that feature some ancient art and lots of more modern work. They are servicable, but anyone with even a passing interest in Greek mythology is likely to be familiar with these illustrations. Very familiar, in some cases, such as Boticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Closing thoughts

To be honest, I was expecting something a bit more. I like Stephen Fry’s other work just fine and was expecting something entertaining if not exactly mind-blowing.

If you’ve never actually sat down with a book about Greek mythology, then Mythos is just fine. It’s a quick read, thanks no doubt to the rather large font in which it is printed, and you’ll probably chuckle at the odd description or turn of phrase.

If you’re already familiar with these stories, I’d say you needn’t bother to pick this up, unless you’re a completionist or a fan of Stephen Fry’s work. There are plenty of other, better books available in English that deal with Greek mythology, though they do veer into the “academic or intellectual” realms studiously avoided by Fry.

In fact, I’ll name two titles off the top of my head that I recommend to those who want to go beyond a simple retelling of the ancient stories. Robin Hard updated and expanded the Handbook to Greek Mythology that was originally written by H.J. Rose. The updated book, published in 2004, isn’t as portable or straightforward as Rose’s original, but it is exhaustive.

More academic is Timothy Gantz’s two-volume reference work Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (1996), which focuses, as the title suggests, on “Early” sources and thus isn’t as comprehensive as the Hard/Rose book. However, it does include a good number of references to ancient art in addition to the ancient texts.