What the Greek Myths Can Teach Us About Our Moment of Crisis
Late 2020 was the last time I had finished my Greek myth compendium. At that point, my Phaethon story was being edited. The source is Ovid’s famous epic poem about transformations, Metamorphoses. Phaethon was born to Helios and drives his burning chariot across every sky each day. Phaethon, however, has not met his father. Instead, he lives with his mother in obscurity, and his friends are scornful of his claim to be a god’s son. Eventually, Phaethon goes in search of Helios, who, when they at last meet, promises the boy a gift—anything he wants. “I want to drive your chariot across the sky, just for one day,” says Phaethon. Helios, horrified by the situation, tries to convince Phaethon not to grant his request.
This is, naturally, a tragedy. A mere boy, he has no chance of controlling the sun-god’s horses. The chariot turns wildly in the direction of the Earth. The chariot turns wildly towards the Earth. Crops turn to black, rivers and streams dry up, mountain tops burn, and people become starving. In the end, it is Gaia—the age-old goddess of the Earth herself—who, parched and weary, calls out in distress. Zeus the King of Gods hears the cry and sends thunderbolts to kill him and stop his march.
At the time, I didn’t have to strain to imagine what the poet was describing: all I had to do was to look at news reports from California, where the sky was stained orange and black with the flames and smoke of wildfires.
Myths have the unique ability to communicate with us from a deep, unfathomable past. But these signals are there to be read in our present, in our moment; and every moment’s reading is different. Long ago, the Phaethon tale was viewed as a parable of youthful folly and arrogance. When I first read it, many years ago, I interpreted it as about a son who is desperate for an absent father’s love. More recently, though, it’s seemed to me inescapably obvious that it asks to be read through an ecological lens: as about a human who is so caught up in his own petty desires that he’s blind to the appalling environmental damage he’s causing. The tragedy of the story, as I rewrite it in my mind now, is that Phaethon’s desperation, his sense of loss and injustice, is so very comprehensible, so intensely human. He is still limited by the scope of his view. And it’s that inability to see more widely, to understand consequences, that is so horrifying
“History is always then, myth is now,” wrote the novelist Pat Barker recently. Historiography’s purpose is to find events and their specificity in time. On the other side, myths are inherently unstable and inherently contaminated. They exist precisely to be read, rewritten, and reinterpreted. The Greek myths are not available in canonical form. Homeric stories such as the Iliad or Odyssey of Homeric poems are, by nature, impure. These stories were retold and retold many times by traveling rhapsodes. That’s true of all classical myths. There’s no “right” version of any of them. There’s the Medea who kills her children (thanks to Euripides’ play). But there’s another Medea who doesn’t kill her children (thanks to a number of other tragedies that survive only in fragments). There’s the Helen who goes to Troy (thanks to Homer). But there’s another Helen who doesn’t go to Troy (thanks to Euripides). These stories are contradictory. They are all Greek myths.
Those fifth-century BCE dramatists of Athens—Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides—used mythical material, often radical expansions of moments or scenes in Homer’s epics, to address the politics of their own time. When we restage these plays —and in the early 21st century, we never seem of tiring of doing so—we’re undertaking something similar, albeit at an extra remove. That is, we’re using the lens of Euripides’ take on unimaginably distant stories of long ago to help us understand our present. The context may have changed beyond all recognition: we’re not staging these plays as part of a religious festival devoted to Dionysus in the blazing Athenian sunshine to an audience largely consisting of men, for instance. But we can still see in these dramas something useful and telling about, say, the moral compromises made when nations go to war (Euripides’ Iphigenia, Aulis); the horrific “collateral damage” visited upon non-combatants (Euripides’ Hecuba); the harm and violence that can travel through the generations when family members turn on each other (Aeschylus’ Oresteia).
How might the Greek mythology help us understand the greatest crisis we face today: The COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer—during a brief respite from spikes of COVID-19, when theatres could open—the National Theatre in London staged a delayed production of Sophocles’ PhiloctetesThis libre translation was made possible by Kae Tempest (who also retitled the drama). Paradise).
Philoctetes is an unusual drama, not usually seen in the U.K. because of its unique story. An archer is the lead character. His leg is badly broken, which disgusts the other Greek soldiers. He has been abandoned on Lemnos, while his former comrades battle for Troy. But a decade later, after such a brutal abandonment, they realize that their former comrade is still needed. A prophecy had told them that Troy would need his bow. The two soldiers Odysseus (and Neoptolemus) set out to persuade Philoctetes, who was not willing to go with them to Troy. The problem is, he doesn’t want to come.
It’s a play that has a lot to say about moral injury, about the corrosion of a sense of right or wrong under the influence of conflict. But in this moment of the pandemic, what radiated from it as I watched it this summer—even though it had been adapted and conceived and even rehearsed Before the pandemic began—was what it had to say about deep physical distress and about the costs of isolation. Perhaps most pointedly, it also seemed to offer a warning that returning to “normality” is not quite as easy as it looks.
Political leadership has, naturally, been brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. COVID-19 has been tested on Presidents and Prime Ministers, with some finding it lacking. Epidemics—or, rather, in poetic parlance, “plagues”—set up the conditions for two important mythical stories: Homer’s Iliad, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos.
You will find the first two lines in the Iliad, the poet asks, rhetorically: What caused the hero Achilles’ wrath? It was Apollo who created a deadly disease that killed the Greek soldiers, which is what the poet reveals. Why? It was in response to a prayer from one of his priests, whose daughter had been seized and enslaved by Agamemnon, the Greeks’ leader. Agamemnon eventually agrees to return the woman, but he’ll grab Achilles’ enslaved captive, Briseis, in compensation, enraging Achilles and prompting his prolonged sulk in his tent.
The action begins by trying to find the root cause of an outbreak. Oedipus Tyrannos. At the start of the play, a delegation of citizens begs King Oedipus of Thebes to do something about the awful disease that’s raging through the city. Oedipus promises to discover the cause, and it’s this investigation that becomes the action of the play, ending up with Oedipus’s dreadful discovery—or diagnosis—that he unknowingly married his mother and killed his father. Oedipus is the source of corruption and the reason for the plague, according to it.
My hope is that we don’t believe in epidemics as divine punishment for some sort of moral sin. But, of course there was plenty who claimed that Aids epidemics were divine punishment during that time. The interesting thing about mythical epidemics in comparison to the present is the information they give us about Oedipus’ and Agamemnon’s personalities. Agamemnon acts with arrogance, unbending pettiness and loses the trust of Achilles his greatest fighter. This sends the Greeks down a path towards military disaster. Oedipus is able to quickly and brilliantly discover the origin of the epidemic. His self-assurance and excessive confidence are evident even though he is responding to the desperate characters in those very first minutes of the drama. His intelligence is amazing. He is blind to the truth. Handling the epidemic is a revelation of one’s true self for each mythological leader.