About myth

Dear Poseidon,

Rape of Demeter by Poseidon, oil on canvas by Teresa Hurley.

I was following the dual American traditions of eating meat cooked outside and igniting small explosive devices the other day by visiting dear friends of the family. It was the conversation I had with one of their boys that I wanted to write to you about. While catching up, I told him that I’ve finished the draft of Depth of Praise. That led him to recall a time — probably half his life ago, when he was about eight years old — when he and his older brother were reading the Percy Jackson books at the same time, and had an ongoing debate about who was greater, you or Zeus. My conversation partner had chosen you, while his brother championed Zeus’ cause.

Looking back on it, my young friend then started thinking more deeply on the subject, and asked me, “Is Poseidon the god of storms? It gets tricky.” He wasn’t actually looking for a response yet, and continued to think aloud. “Zeus is the rain, but rain is water, which is Poseidon, and it soaks into and under the ground, which is Hades,” he mused. “How do you know which god to pray to?”

“Maybe that’s why the myths have a lot of references to incest,” I realized in my outside voice. “The lines get blurry, and those are the stories that try to explain it. Like Zeus marrying Hera and Poseidon being with Demeter.” About that time I realized that I was the one this conversation was for.

We say it all the time: the myths are not intended to be interpreted literally. And yet, we interpret the myths literally. People complain about rapist gods and rail against incestuous gods and get ticked off that the ableist gods cast out lame Hephaistos. We might be less likely to assume that all humanity’s woes were kept in a box, or that a titan brought the first fire to mortal hands. The negative stuff, though, is easier to get judgmental about. The truth about myths is that they’re metaphors that are as fleeting as the shadows on the wall of the allegorical cave. We have a sense of you theoi, but you are well beyond our meat-brain comprehension, and what we do understand is through nonverbal parts of that brain. Thus, we take an experience of something unimaginably vast and thoroughly aware, which is occurs entirely on levels of consciousness which language cannot being to touch, and we try to capture those experiences with the first tool we master, that of words. Each of those myths hints at your personalities, your motivations, and your areas of influence, and sometimes the metaphors used include incest, and rape.

Those are strong words, and they are not nice words. I know that your moods include the most terrible, Poseidon, and you certainly have the power to assert your will over another, but I am not sure if that’s actually what’s going on. Is the ocean raping a cliff if its waves wear at its base? Is a tree’s tap root committing an act of incest as it penetrates the earth, mother of all? What do we know of the mating practices of gods, after all? Does “mating” even apply, or is it as useful a word as “saunter” is for describing a biathlon or triathlon? Or both at once?  The stories from before when Homer spun tales suggest that you and Demeter were mates, yet his contemporaries referred to your coupling as rape.  I wonder if we haven’t let our mythic tradition ossify, Poseidon. We seek the most accurate translations of the earliest transcriptions, and from these we learn quite a bit about our ancestors and their relationship with you, but isn’t this a living tradition? We need to be writing and telling new myths, written today, which give new glimpses of understanding who you are. They won’t be any more accurate than the venerated tales from antiquity, but they will likewise be threads added to our tapestry of comprehension. I know that there is a decent amount of fiction written about the theoi and other gods, but I’m not sure if that’s the same thing as writing myth. The latter is more akin to oracular work, in my mind. Some of the fiction out there might rise to that level, but up until I write these words, Poseidon, it hadn’t occurred to me that I ought to read some of it to find out.

Bottom line on myths is that they draw upon the feelings of the writer and the times in which that writer lives. Well do you know, Mousêgetês, that were I to write myths of you, they would not be all soft hugs and sunny days. On the other hand, I doubt they would include rape, either. I just don’t think that’s the language which would fit for my understanding of you. If I were living in the lands of Hellas in antiquity, perhaps I would make a different choice.  Myth is a partnership, the filtering of divine experience through a mortal brain to create art. Change either partner, and the finished work is very different. I’m not surprised at the imagery which spoke to some of my ancestors, but I don’t see the infiltration of the ocean into the shore as an act of violation. If you’d like to explore what we can create together, I would be honored to try.

Your devoted subject,