Myth and Fingerprints
I was thinking recently about my school library in 3rd grade.
Not sure why. It could’ve been the recent news reports on libraries without books — without physical books, anyway; rather, they’re community spaces with computers where users can surf the Internet and check out E-books — that got me remembering how I’d settle down in the stacks in front of the encyclopedias and basically use the references in the article at hand the way we use hyperlinks online today.
I have several fond memories, general and specific, of libraries. One suspects many readers do. Those I’ve shared on the blog before include — nestled in a post on TV’s Supernatural — memories of my favorite aisle in this particular library. What brought me to that aisle was books on Greek and Roman mythology, a subject I read about voraciously and to an almost literally exhausting degree. Based on periodic scans of various library and bookstore shelves, I may well have gone through every relevant volume in print. Some books were, from my youthful perspective at least, stuffier than others, a category in which I preferred Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to Bulfinch’s. There were plenty of slim paperbacks and large, illustrated tomes aimed more directly at my age, too, with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths atop the heap of the latter.
One element of that last book I appreciated was the family tree depicting the Titans
who preceded the familiar gods of Olympus. Distinctions between the Olympians, largely the children of Titan king Cronus and queen Rhea, and other offspring of the Titans, who like Hyperion and Thea’s son Helios were still called Titans, fascinated and confused me. At times Helios seemed interchangeable with Hyperion rather than being his son, and the Olympian Apollo (god of music, etc.) apparently took Helios’ place as the deity who rode the chariot across the sky as generations went on, and Apollo was also known as Phoebus, while his twin sister Artemis (goddess of the hunt, etc.) was also known as Phoebe, but Phoebe was also the name of the Titan associated with the moon’s own chariot before Artemis, and the Titan Selene was also the goddess of the moon like her brother and/or cousin Helios was of the sun, and of course in Roman myth Artemis was known as Diana, whereas Apollo was still Apollo or Phoebus or maybe Phoebus Apollo, and by the way Artemis might have been a deity from another culture superimposed onto and/or subsumed by the equivalent Greek icon as often happened when Greek influence spread via trade and language and conquest.
Since the publishing mythologies of the superhero comics I read were likewise patchwork — with earlier stories frequently differentiated by editors, in retrospect, as belonging to various parallel universes, and certain irreconcilable quirks even waved away as errors in transcription by the writers of our own universe who, I kid you not, were in the comics themselves described as tuning into the colorful exploits of would-be fictional characters in other dimensions through their dreams — I understood how the tales told by the Greeks and Romans and other cultures they’d conquered could wind up a melange. You play telephone across the miles and over the years, or just come up with a better story, and the newer version wins. I still longed for a definitive record of those changes, however, the way DC’s Nelson Bridwell would offer up a list of differences between the Earth-One and Earth-Two incarnations of Superman, and, even though the myths were by the present day firmly regarded as myths rather than religious beliefs or even useful allegories for natural phenomena, I wanted an official record of the Olympian pantheon.
I think it’s that impetus which brought me to the encyclopedias at my school library; after all, if they could tell me the current population, altitude, and state flag of Arkansas and everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, they could surely provide the definitive scoop on Aphrodite. Looking up Hera or Poseidon, I’d see the names of their Roman counterparts and be directed to entries of other gods or demigods or legends to find out more. It would not be unusual to discover me at 8 years old resting on that library floor with X-Y-Z open to the Zeus entry while the H in my hands had a piece of paper marking the page for Hercules — or perhaps Herakles — that Zeus had suggested as further reading because I’d turned to the entry for Hydra later in that same volume. The Internet before we had the Internet, like I said.
My younger self would be astounded by the possibilities of the actual Internet, of course, not least as a repository of superhero, comics, and television lore nor a way to converse with like-minded readers, fans, and scholars. He might be surprised to find that I’ve never really used it to delve deeper into Greek mythology, though. While I’m still enamored of the subject — and I’ve expanded my autodidacticism to explorations of other cultures’ mythologies as well as modern uses of such concepts in fiction — I long ago hit a bit of a saturation point in terms of reading anything that could tell me something new, as the stories got repetitive and I realized that there was honestly no definitive scoop to be had.
Nearly a decade ago I did receive from a cousin with similar interests an enormous, horizontally oriented book that was a genealogy of figures from Greek myth, but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get to delve into it before it got boxed up in my last move and like much other good stuff it’s still in that condition. [Update: The book in question is Harold & Jon O. Newman’s A Genealogical Chart of Greek Mythology from The University of North Carolina Press.] If you know of a choice online source detailing the iterations of Greek and Roman mythology through antiquity, I hope you’ll share it.
Related: A, Plus • Shelf Obsession • Out of the Pantheon, Into the Fire