Leading Article: A place for Elvis among the gods of Olympus

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The Independent Online
In the Iliad, Homer gives us fairly precise directions to Olympus, home of the gods. You take a right past the second cypress on Pilion, skirt Ossa and go straight ahead. You can't miss it. Yet the mountain is not just a place, that's to say a real location with geographical co- ordinates. It also exists "out there" in realms of fantasy and myth and "in here" in popular imagination and private veneration.

Memphis, Tennessee is not so dissimilar. Elvis's Memphis is two places. One is the sweaty Mississippi crossing point you get to on I-40 where you can take the tour bus round Sam Phillips' old studio and all the other places we know from the Presley biography, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and of course Graceland. But Memphis is also a magical and unspecific site which exists inside the imaginations of the King's millions of followers.

Memphis and Olympus have more in common than that. Elvis would find himself at home among the godly crew who used to hang around Zeus's palace - some of them were pretty big eaters, who wouldn't readily turn down an invitation to an orgy. There were flashy dressers, good lookers and good lovers there too, and songs rising in the air. Elvis has certain of the qualifications generally expected in gods - such as immortality (at least 30 years' worth of it and the cult looking good for many decades to come) and invisibility (if you don't count the myriad sightings and his two-a-penny impersonators). Transcendental he may not be, but transcontinental he certainly is, worshipped across the political and religious boundaries of the world, quite a plus in this age of new fundamentalisms. Of course he is American and represents the mores of one country, just like Coke and the DOS operating system. Elvis, however, is much, much more than a spiritual stormtrooper for American cultural imperialism. Previous world religions have sprung out of some very peculiar places before, like the Arabian desert, the banks of the Ganges and the Judean uplands and we don't talk about Islamic, Hindu or Christian imperialism.

If Elvis hasn't yet accomplished miracles (outside the pages of the National Inquirer, at least) he undoubtedly performs many of the functions that in other contexts would be labelled religious, providing succour, inspiration, reassurance, hope, affirmation of life-in-death and a modus vivendi for struggling and confused people trying to make it in a difficult world. He may not have been a particularly good man, but he was better than some of the murderers and power-drunk maniacs who have been venerated through the ages.

It won't do to object that a lot of the Elvis cult is mere necrophilia. After all, in most of the world's major religious traditions, sainthood is closely related to the conditions of saintly death. Visit the Basilica in Padua, for example, in order to inspect St Anthony's various internal organs. In a fair number of instances, and not just in Christianity, the saint's life has been a pretty rum affair, too. You might call Elvis a kind of inverted Augustine. One started off lean and hungry and got fat later on, the other started off with sex, drugs and the fifth-century equivalent of rock and roll and adopted a lean and hungry look only later; both left behind a set of precepts for living (viz. "wise men say...", "I don't want a four-leafed clover").

Besides, Elvis wins the dispensation we tend to award artists. It often doesn't so much matter how they lived, how many illegitimate children they had, or how many jelly and peanut butter sandwiches they scoffed because they produced great works. A good and untimely death excuses even more. Elvis Lives! is more than a slogan. It accurately describes the place the iconic Elvis has come to occupy in the collective imagination and countless individual minds.

Does that make him a spiritual figure, in the dictionary definition of - ``not concerned with external reality, inspired, divine''? It is hard for some of us to imagine anyone less saintly or less spiritual. Yet we live in strange times. It's not that you cannot tell reason from unreason but that they seem able to co-exist remarkably happily in many confused minds. This week we heard of a celebrated psychic consultation but one only undertaken thanks to a helicopter ride - which illustrates the easy co-habitation of technological rationalism (try building a helicopter without a degree in aerodynamics) and wild, incontrovertible faith.

We would not in all seriousness compare Elvis to a real religious figure, despite the unreasoning devotion he inspires. He never asked for that. He was, in the end, only an entertainer, a singer: we would credit him with the intelligence to be aghast at the antics of some of his devotees, could he see them now. He offers no serious code to live by or general philosophy. Yet millions will today be making their pilgrimage to Graceland, whether in body or in imagination, to celebrate a long dead rock and roll singer. In the monotheistic world that much of mankind has inhabited during the past couple of millennia, it seems frankly bizarre. But the old polytheists of Greece and Rome, a rather earthier lot, would have understood it all perfectly. In Olympus, they are swaying and chuckling.