"What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?" Hamlet's question concerns the universality of Homeric myth. Mythic consciousness has long deserted us. Who's Hecuba anyway? Should I know her? The Scottish publishing house Canongate has proposed to restore myth - or to provide the materials for its regeneration - in a grandiose project akin to the epic revival of classicism in the European Renaissance, which liked to compare its labours with those of the gods and heroes of classical mythology.
But Icarus fell to his death: the Renaissance fully understood the hubristic character of its enterprise. In grafting classical myth on to Christian "Truth", humanists like Bruno and Ficino experienced the nervous elation of the over-reacher. Bruno was burnt by the Inquisition.
The current renaissance courts the oblivion of Lethe rather than the fires of Hell. Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth is a general introduction to the series. Such a cursory summary is bound to be synoptic, thin on detail and inadequately nuanced. Armstrong has provided a valiant and readable account, clearly and concisely written, though as woolly in its methodology as the woolly ponies it describes on the walls of the Palaeolithic subterranean caverns of Altamira and Lascaux. The language of psychotherapy murmurs around the narratives, viewing myth as therapy for our godforsaken age.
Armstrong traces the emergence of myth to our Neanderthal ancestors, whose gravegoods imply the existence of "counter-narrative" that helped them "come to terms with" mortality. In the Palaeolithic age she focuses on the numinous cave-paintings of animals, shamans disguised as animals and hunters with spears. Pilgrims - young hunters undergoing an initiation rite (perhaps) - crawled (probably) into the tomblike darkness to commune with the sacred pictures and emerged from the earth's womb initiated. It was here that "the myth of the hero was born". The caves, Armstrong tells us, are a birth passage to a new life, telling " us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person".
The sermonical "we" of Armstrong's book often grates: "we" are said to need the healing myth can provide. What cave is available to moderns wishing to follow the heroic path? Where is the Sacred Way to Eleusis where I can experience the vision of Persephone Sophocles and Cicero commended as life-changing? As Armstrong admits, the secularist and rationalist modern age lacks a body of belief to which mythology might be grafted. Beyond this, it is a matter of language: and indeed perhaps the one hundred new books will weave together a language complex, dynamic and rich enough to convince us that mythology is a living matter for our time. If so, the writers must confront the tendency of postmodernism to fritter that unitary life in irony and self-conscious cleverness.
Jeanette Winterson's Weight concerns Atlas: not perhaps the most prepossessing of heroes nor one with great narrative possibilities. Mountain-man, immovable, he was never the brightest button in the box. The Titan son of earth and sky, Atlas was punished for his part in the revolt against the parvenu Olympian gods, by being condemned to stand in the Garden of the Hesperides supporting the cosmos.
Winterson focuses on Atlas's bamboozlement by Heracles, who beguiles Atlas into shifting the weight on to his shoulders, if Atlas will appropriate a golden apple: he then tricks Atlas into taking back the world. Winterson plays with the ancient tale, with promiscuous wit and exuberant fantasy. There is much impudent and arch punning and the conversations between Heracles and Atlas are madly mock-epic. This is a postmodern reprise, deconstructing rather than recreating the story, using a sporadically sententious and vatic voice to reflect on Fate and freewill, boundaries and confinement. Provocative slippage between metaphor, allegory, literality and pun invokes the gap between ancient animistic modes of seeing, geological vista and everybody's mum rampant in the kitchen. Winterson produces some exquisitely filmic prose that is almost mythopoetic, as where the wooing tide leaves delicate gifts for the earth, "a piece of coral, mother of pearl, a shell as spiralled as a dream". But levity is never far away: mother-earth "lapped it up".
Moving to Alastair Blanshard's Hercules is curiously liberating: paradoxically this book, a substantial work of cultural history, makes easier reading. You learn something on every page, while being entertained both by the witty telling and the writer's lightly worn erudition. Hercules is a hero for all times: his 24ft statue, naked except for a cap of liberty and a fig-leaf, briefly towered over Revolutionary Paris in 1793. From Alexander the Great to Napoleon and Mussolini, the strong men of history bragged of the iconography of a "new Hercules"; and each time they did so, they courted disaster.
For Hercules the crazed murderer of his wife and children is one with the Hercules who slays the monsters in his ten (or twelve) labours. Hounded by Hera, his story oscillates between tragedy and comedy, revealing the amorality and cruelty of the Greek gods. It is for his stigmatising pain and his capacity for humiliation, as much as for potency and power, that we remember Hercules. Blanshard focuses on the myth's equivocal heart: " Those arrows that can kill a centaur really rip through female flesh." The virile force that throttled the Nemean lion and grappled the hydra's heads, on behalf of the community, threatens the very root of civilisation by its inability to be contained. A mirror for tyrants.
Stevie Davies' 'Kith and Kin' is published by PhoenixReuse content