CHAPTER ONE ~ Ancient History

Pomegranate Flesh is a retelling of an ancient Greek story. In this chapter the origins of the story on a cultural and historic level are probed. A brief account is given of the first authors of the myths that make up the manuscript. The chapter then discusses the existence of an oral tradition and a cultural-academic process that preserved the myths, as well as the current diversity of opinion on the meaning of mythology.

There are countless books about Greek mythology. Most of them simply relate the myths, stating as simple facts the marital, romantic and other connections between members of the pantheon (Lewis, 1987; Lancelyn Green, 1958; Coolidge, 1967; Richardson, 1983; Birrer & Birrer, 1987; Oldfield, 1988). Few however quote their sources and fewer still make serious attempts at explaining the origins of the stories.

Travelling backwards through time to ancient Greece one encounters a number of milestones relevant to understanding the origins of its stories. Let’s make our first stop 347BC. We arrive just in time for Plato’s funeral. His death followed close after the completion of his great work The Republic (Plato, 1958), which explores, via dialogues, a number of religious and political themes, such as the relevance of goodness and democracy. The Parliament, which decades earlier found Socrates guilty of encouraging young Athenians to question traditional ideas, is flourishing and the theatres bustle with activity, providing a forum for the works of many writers. We are also in the temporal vicinity of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the man dubbed “the father of history” (Gould, 1989), on the grounds that his coverage of the battles between the Greek and Persian empires was the first of its kind. His work is seen as the earliest surviving genuine attempt at reportage unembellished by plot, rhyme or metre.

Another leap back in time takes us beyond the cultural watershed of circa 500BC to the time of Hesiod (approx 700-800BC) and Homer (approx 800-900BC). Here history becomes blurred by a lack of concrete data.

Allegedly, Homer’s two great works were The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War, and The Odyssey which details the adventures of Odysseus, the exiled king whose patient wife Penelope waited for him to return. As a long explanation of what is known about Homer’s life and work would represent a digression let it suffice to say that there was much debate for many years over whether The Iliad and The Odyssey could possibly have been written by the same person (Shaw, 1992). Even though The Iliad and The Odyssey are commonly attributed to a person called Homer, according to Professor John Melville-Jones from the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia: “There is absolute agreement that if Homer existed he certainly didn’t write the stories down with a pen and ink. If anything he may have been a particularly talented storyteller, relating tales from the pre-existing oral tradition, he may even have been the last and the best.” (J. Melville-Jones, personal communication, June 3, 2002). Interestingly, both works were thought for many years to be purely fiction until in the late 1800s rogue archeologist Heinrich Schliemann stunned the archeological world by taking The Iliad seriously and successfully going in search of the city of Troy.

In addition to The Iliad and The Odyssey there exists a set of poems commonly called the ‘Homeric Hymns’, which include The Homeric Hymn to Demeter which outlines in 489 lines of verse the myth of Demeter and Persephone. This version of the story contains elements such as the forced abduction of Persephone, the intervention of Hecate, Demeter’s withholding of fruitfulness and her eventual success in securing the partial return of her daughter, that have been retold by many contemporary writers, including Lewis (1987), Richardson (1983), Lancelyn Green (1958) and Beane Rutter (2000). According to Melville-Jones the origins of the poems are as mysterious as those of The Iliad and The Odyssey and although they are written in a similar style, there is no evidence linking them specifically with Homer. (J. Melville-Jones, personal communication, June 3, 2002).

While deities such as Hermes breeze into scenes within The Iliad and The Odyssey with declarations such as: “I that am come to you am an immortal god, Hermes. My father sent me to guide you on you way, But now I shall go and not appear before the eyes of Achilles.” (The Iliad, cited in Stewart, 1966, p.18), his focus stays fixed on the unfolding of the human dramas he tells. In his texts, Gods play cameo roles. As Guirand succinctly explains:

The Greek Pantheon was established as early as the Homeric epoch. The many divinities of which it was composed generally appear in The Iliad and The Odyssey with their characteristic physiognomy, their traditional attributes and their own time-honoured legends. But the poet tells us nothing of their origin or their past. At the most he mentions that Zeus is the son of Cronus and says incidentally that Ocean and his spouse Tethys were the creators of gods and living beings.

(1982, p. 87)

Hesiod is an altogether more obscure character and his work has in some respects attracted less attention, perhaps because it is not so easily defined as literature. Details about his history are extremely sketchy. All that is known about Hesiod as a person are assumptions drawn from his text. He is assumed to have been a farmer, because of the content of his piece Works and Days, and he is assumed to have had a scheming brother called Persus because he appears in the text (Guirand, 1982).

Stewart, waxing relatively lyrical on the subject of Hesiod, writes:

Two works, and fragments of others have come down to us under the name of Hesiod. Although written in the same meter and formulaic language, this poetry with its distinctly personal tone and educative interest is quite unlike the impersonal narrative of Homeric epic. Its subject matter too is different, including aspects of man, nature and the divine that are largely missing in Homer….. The Works and Days takes its name from sections describing the work to be done by a farmer in each season and the supposed usefulness of certain days of the month. It becomes in its latter parts a kind of farmers’ almanac and a guide to proverbial superstitions. And indeed it represents throughout the traditional thoughts of landsmen about nature, the gods and man, just as Homer represents another traditional inheritance.
(1966, p. 23)

Hesiod’s two works are Works and Days and Theogony. The first is described above and the second is an educative piece about the history of the gods, written in a tone so poetic that little time has been devoted to arguments about its historical accuracy. It has however provided scholars of mythology with a vast supply of data.

After commenting on Homer’s lack of mythic data, Guirand goes on to say:

Hesiod’s poem, the Theogony, written about the 8th century BC, is the oldest Greek attempt at mythological classification. While recounting the origin of the gods, recalling their chief adventures and establishing their relationships, he also claims to explain the formation of the universe. The poem is thus as much a cosmogony as a theogony. A reflection of popular beliefs, the Theogony of Hesiod had, in Greece, a kind of official recognition.

(1982, p. 87)

Guirand (1982) who wrote the chapter on Greek Mythology in the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, used Hesiod’s Theogony as his principle source of information.

According to Stewart (1966), before Hesiod recorded them the stories are assumed to have existed as an oral tradition. While it cannot be known how many generations heard the tales from their grandmothers before Hesiod’s time, there is no reason to assume that his recording of them stopped the oral flow and that subsequent written versions of the tales were not influenced by the oral tradition versions that continued to percolate through the region’s communities.

Summarising the ancient sources of the Demeter/Persephone myth, it can be said that Homer made little more than passing comments on it in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Hesiod made reference to it in Theogony with lines such as “Also he [Zeus] came to the bed of all nourishing Demeter, and she bare white-armed Persephone whom Aidoneus carried off from her mother” (cited in Evelyn-White, 1954, p. 145). The story in its earliest most complete form occurs in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, whose authorship and date is still under debate.

Mythologist Charlene Spretnak (1978) throws a different light on the early history of the story however with a claim that there were significant shifts in Greek mythology between the pre-Hellenic and the Hellenic (776BC - 323BC) periods. In her book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece she writes:

The Greek myths of the classical [Hellenistic] period have long been considered the Greek myths. The classicist Jane Ellen Harrison was among the first to recognise that those myths are actually a late development in a long mythic tradition: “ Beneath this splendid surface [of Homer’s Olympian myths] lies a stratum…at once more primitive and more permanent.” Drawing from various sources of evidence, Harrison delineated the strong contrasts between the matrifocal, pre-Hellenic body of mythology and the patriarchal, Olympian system that later evolved. … There are a number of reasons why this chapter of our cultural history has been “lost”. The most obvious is that the pre-Hellenic myths are the religion of a conquered people, so they were co-opted and replaced for political reasons. Second, pre-Hellenic mythology was an oral tradition, and many clues to its nature have been lost over the past 3500 years. Third, a culturally imposed bias among many Victorian and contemporary scholars prevented them from accepting the evidence that deity was originally perceived as female in most areas of the world.
(1987, p.21-22)

Spretnak proceeds to make a well-referenced attempt at reconstructing the early mythology. With reference to the Demeter/Persephone story she says: “The rape of Persephone reflects the rape of pre-Hellenistic culture and does not seem to have been part of her mythology before the invasions.” (1987, p. 29)

Graves (1982) supports the notion that the mythology was first an oral tradition and that changes were made in the stories in order to incorporate invasions and revolutions.

The notion that the myths as recorded by Homer and Hesiod and the mysterious author of the Homeric Hymns were not original works of fiction but derivations of an existing story cycle is also supported by a comment made by Plato in The Republic (1958). Speaking about Homer and Hesiod, Plato criticises the poets for making changes to the myths saying:

We must stop all stories of this kind, and stop mothers being misled by them and scaring their children by perversions of the myths, and telling tales about a host of fantastic spirits that prowl about at night; they are blaspheming the gods and making cowards of their children.
(p. 120)

Having been related around countless fireplaces, these stories have been cherished, embellished and passed down through generations. The villages of Greece however were not the only reservoirs that held the Greek mythology. As McLeish wrote: “If Greek myth had depended for survival on the life of the religion or communities which sustained it, it would have been defunct for over seventeen centuries.” (2001, p.11). He goes on to explain that the myths survived because they not only validated the lives of the people who created and maintained them but because they “irradiated their imaginations”. He goes on to explain the social, academic/linguistic and political processes that saw the body of Greek mythology travel intact through time through the Roman era; the early Christian Era; the Middle Ages in Europe and through an upsurge of interest in the classical world following the fall of Constantinople in 1435. The ‘classics’, as they became known were an integral part of educated life during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, losing their status only as interest in scientific rationality came to the fore at the end of the 19th century.

McLeish (2001) documents a number of processes that saw attitudes towards Greek myths shift dramatically. These included the development of an approach to studying them that replicated theology practices of the day and leant heavily on issues to do with linguistics and the accuracy of translations. He says:

The result of all this was that classical scholars became archivists…[and] European universities became filled with magnificently reconstructed texts which everyone revered but no one bothered to relate to the living beings who had created them and enjoyed them in the first place.
(2001, p.14)

As living language versions of the classics were published (as opposed to versions only in ancient Greek or Latin) they became popular with more people but this contributed to their devaluing on academic levels. McLeish said that this continued into the 20th century until the Greek myths were “hardly regarded as fit material for adult attention” (2001, p.17). By this time however, they had fossilised into a well-preserved body of work able to be used as a resource by contemporary writers, such as Robert Graves, who injected considerable interest back into the classical world with his works of re-interpretive fiction I, Claudius and Claudius, the God (in 1934 and 1935) and with his comprehensive text book The Greek Myths first published in 1955 and most recently reprinted in 2001.

While the 20th century saw a diminishment of interest in the ‘classics’ as straight translations of ancient texts, interest in their potential continued to brew in the literary world, with James Joyce’s Ulysses (1960), first published in 1922, attracting considerable attention and sparking debate. The book takes the plot of the Greek Ulysses/Odyssey myth and applies it to one day in the life of a 1920s Irishman, in doing so raising the issue that men are still facing the same kinds of personal challenges as the men of ancient Greece. While, in the light of more recent writings this can be seen as a sweeping statement about social psychology, Ulysses has for the most part been discussed in terms of its literary merit and level of obscenity (Ellmann, 1960, p. 718). It took a gradual change in thinking that was initiated in the early 1900s by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to make a solid connection between ancient mythology and contemporary human psychology.

Freud used the myth of Oedipus to describe a neurotic disorder. With this move, that was controversial in its day, Freud suggested that a myth is a kind of generic plot that certain human lives follow. Carl Jung followed with further thought and research into the psychological uses of myths. With this began a psychological interest in mythology that branched off from historic and literary interest in the subject.

While many scholars still hold to the position that the Greek myths are anthropological footprints of no substantial value in and of themselves, other than as sources of clues for archeologists ~ as The Iliad was to Schliemann (Gould, 1989), a diversity of opinion exists in other disciplines. Graves (1982), for example, argues that myths serve two functions: to provide answers awkward questions and to justify an existing social system. Campbell goes further and says mythology serves four functions: Mystical, Cosmological, Sociological and Pedagogical (Campbell & Moyers, 1988). Sptretnak (1987) goes as far as to declare that there are as many interpretations of mythology and there are mythologists.

For the purposes of explaining the origins and motivations behind the writing of the Pomegranate Flesh manuscript it is now necessary for us to leave many of the various available perspectives on mythology behind and to follow one particular tributary. The next chapter will begin with a description of the concept of the Collective Unconscious introduced in the early part of the last century by Carl Jung. This concept is important to understanding the process behind the manuscript because it was a perspective that I had read about and embraced long before I even imagined writing a book.

[Chapter Two ~ The Collective Unconscious]