The Real Story
13 January, 2008
The mythological stories that I put up on this blog are my interpretations of traditional tales. One of the appealing attributes of myths is that every single version of a tale has been defined by decisions about what is important to the overall story. Unlike a novel which generally has one author, myths don’t have a definitive version. The sands shift beneath our feet when we try and look at the ‘true version’ or the ‘real story’ at the root of a myth. Some examples will show the difficulty in being certain about these stories.
The death of Agamemnon is related in the Odyssey. Telemachus has journeyed to the court of Menelaus and Helen of Troy in order to find out if Menelaus has any word of his father Odysseus. While there Menelaus relates what happened after the fall of Troy and includes the story of Agamemnon’s return home. While away at the war Agamemnon’s wife had conducted an affair with Aegisthus, and when Agamemnon arrived back he was slaughtered, along with his followers, by this cruel and cunning Aegisthus. When Menelaus relates this tale he talks of the nobility of Agamemnon and the cruelty of the adulterer Aegisthus. And yet although this seems to be the oldest version of the story, it is not the most famous. Pindar, a Greek poet, wrote of how Agamemnon was killed in his bath by his wife. He had returned from Troy with the seer Cassandra and jealousy drove his wife to stab him to death while he bathed. Or perhaps it was retribution since in some stories Agamemnon had sacrificed his own daughter. Any tale of Agamemnon cannot possibly have all versions and so one must be chosen that suits the rest of the tale that is being told.
Superman flies. It’s iconic, he wouldn’t be Superman if he couldn’t woosh into the air, or hover in the background with his cape billowing. And yet in the early stories he was only able to leap over buildings in a single bound. Super jumping is not quite the same as flying. If you were to tell the myth of Superman would you include the fact he can fly? It is so ingrained in the idea of him now that it would be strange not to include it except to make the point that originally he was more of a human flea! In the early stories the planet Krypton is “so far advanced in evolution that it bears a race of superman”. In other stories the people of Krypton were normal and only when exposed to the Earth’s sun did Superman become, well, super. The evolution of the Superman myth, from powerful human to demigod has fascinating parallels in another set of stories.
Just as the Christmas story differs between the four canonical Gospels, so too do other aspects of Jesus’ story. In particular the accounts of the resurrection are quite different even amongst the synoptic gospels, showing evidence that they are later additions to the core of the story that all three synoptic gospels share. When asked then to get to the truth of the Jesus story then, should you use Matthew and have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on two donkeys? And the hordes of zombie saints that rose from the dead on the same day as Jesus rose from the dead? Or should you use Mark and end the story with some women finding the empty tomb and then not telling anybody about it which is why nobody to this day has ever heard that Jesus rose from the dead?
Anytime someone makes an effort to come up with a definitive version of a myth they must pick and choose which bits they want to keep in and (as important) which bits to leave out. Whether for theological reasons or to make a story more consistent, people have been retelling myths for as long as there have been stories, subtly changing them to keep them up to date, re-looking at old ideas and always inevitably adding a little something to the myth. Although I try not to add anything to the stories I relate in this blog, and that all the core ideas are from (usually written) sources it is inevitable that they will end up being something new. At the least they will hopefully be a new lens to look at old ideas.