Greek gods inspire, explain life's stories

June 08, 1993|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

"These things never happened, but they are always."

If you think this enigmatic phrase sounds like something intoned by the oracle at Delphi, you wouldn't be that far wrong. It's Italian publisher and writer Roberto Calasso quoting the Roman historian Sallust at the beginning of his entrancing book of and on Greek mythology, "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony."

First published in Italy in 1988 and winner of several prestigious European literary awards, the English translation by Tim Parks finally crossed the Atlantic this spring to be met with a generally ecstatic reception.

And rightly so. Beautifully written, unabashedly literary and yet wonderfully accessible and entertaining, "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" is quite unlike any other recent book. In fact, it is easier to say what "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" isn't than what it is. What it's not is a straight, chronological recounting of the Greek myths, the kind you might find in textbooks with the sex sanitized and the morals underlined.

Certainly, Mr. Calasso tells the tales of gods and heroes, the seductions and abductions, the murders and metamorphoses, in magical fashion. He begins with Europa and the bull that was Zeus and eventually winds back to the union of Uranus and Ge that gave birth to the gods, then moves forward to the death of Odysseus and the end of the age of heroes.

For a finale, he gives us the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony -- the last time gods feasted with mortals -- and Cadmus' departure from the rubble of Thebes. Cadmus left the world the alphabet, with "which the Greeks would teach themselves to experience the gods in the silence of the mind, and no longer in the full and normal presence." The age of stories -- our age -- thus begins.

Throughout, too, Mr. Calasso shows us how the myths and their innumerable variants interconnect. Cadmus set out to find his sister Europa and won Harmony instead, while Europa ended up in Crete; one of her grandsons was the Minotaur. Eris' failure to be invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis led to the Judgment of Paris, which, in turn, led to the Trojan War.

"Stories never live alone: They are the branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward," Mr. Calasso writes near his book's beginning.

Mr. Calasso's poetic relish enhances the familiar stories. "The Achaean warriors advance, legs and thighs white with dust. The heavy hoofs of their horses churn up clouds of it into a bronze sky." Much, much later, Troy falls and Menelaus goes in search of his wife. "And at the back of the last room he found Helen. He advanced without a word, his sword bespattered with blood and gore, pointing at her belly. Helen looked at him and bared her breast. Menelaus let his sword drop."

But the wonder of "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" is the way in which Mr. Calasso weaves-in his reflections on the myths and their relationships to one another and to us. He isn't so much explaining what the myths mean as showing that it's the myths that do the explaining. You want to know about our feelings about guilt or betrayal, sacrifice or alienation? The myths will tell you.

"For centuries people have spoken of the Greek myths as of something to be rediscovered, reawoken," Mr. Calasso writes. "The truth is it is the myths that are still out there waiting to wake us and be seen by us, like a tree waiting to greet our newly opened eyes."

Furthermore, he tells us at book's end, "A life in which the gods are not invited isn't worth living. It will be quieter, but there won't be any stories. And you could suppose that these dangerous invitations were in fact contrived by the gods themselves, because the gods get bored with men who have no stories."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony"

Author: Roberto Calasso; translated by Tim Parks

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 391 pages, $25

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