Roberto Calasso-Plato’s Attitude Toward The Myths

Plato’s cave allegory, in the collected works of Hendrik Laurenz Spieghel
‘Hertspieghel’, published by Wetstein in Amsterdam-1694.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is from Roberto Calasso’s breathtaking and mesmerizing ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’, Vintage 1993 English Edition, page 278 to 282.


‘Plato’s attitude toward the myths is one that the more lucid of the moderns sometimes achieve. The more obtuse, on the other hand, still argue around the notion of ‘belief’, a fatal word when it comes to mythology, as if the credence the ancients lent to the myths had anything to do with the superstitious conviction with which philologists of the age of Wilamowitz believed in the lighting of an electric bulb on their desks. No, Socrates himself cleared up this point shortly before his death: we enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments. More than a belief it is a magical bond that tightens around us. It is a spell the soul casts on itself. ‘This risk is fine indeed, and what we must somehow do with these things is enchant (epadein) ourselves.’ Epadein is the verb that designate the ‘enchanting song’, ‘These things’, as Socrates casually puts it, are the fables, the myths.


In Greece, myth escapes from ritual like a genie from a bottle. Ritual is tied to gesture, and gesture are limited; what else can you do once you’ve burned your offerings, poured your libation, bowed, greased yourself, competed in races, eaten, copulated? But if the stories start to become independent, to develop names and relationships, then one day you realize that they have taken on a life of their own. The Greeks were unique among the peoples of the Mediterranean in not passing on their stories via a priestly authority. They were rambling stories, which is partly why they so easily got mixed-up. And the Greeks became so used to hearing the same stories told with different plots that it got to be a perfectly normal thing for them. Nor was any final authority to turn to for a correct version. Homer was the ultimate name one could evoke: but Homer hadn’t told all the stories.


This flight of myths from ritual recalled Zeus’s constant adulterous adventures. Through those incursions. He was father of Dike, and had her sit on the throne on his right hand as personification of Justice and Order, revealed himself to be ‘against justice; and to harbor ‘thoughts opposed to order’. The revelation that license was not perennially condemned but might be acceptable, at least if it came from above: that was the gift of the age of Zeus. Divine incursions were an unexpected overflowing of reality. Thus, in contrast to the harsh coercion of ritual, history was a constant overflowing, leaving, visible in its wake, those relics we call characters.


Much was implicit in the Greek myths that has been lost to us today. When we look at the night sky, our first impression is one of amazement before a random profusion scattered across a dark background. Plato could still recognize ‘the friezes in the sky’. And he maintained that those friezes were the ‘most beautiful and exact’ images in the visible order. But when we see a sash of fraying white, the Milky Way, girdle of some giantess, we are incapable of perceiving any order, let it alone a movement within that order. No, we immediately start to think of distances, of the inconceivable light-years. We have lost the capacity, the optical capacity even, to place myths in the sky. Yet, despite being reduced to just their fragrant rind of stories, we still feel the Greek myths are cohesive and interconnected, right down to the humblest variant, as if we knew why they were so. And we don’t know. A trait of Hermes, or Artemis, or Aphrodite, or Athena forms a part of the figure, as though the pattern of the original material were emerging in the random scatter of the surviving rags.


We shouldn’t be too concerned about having lost many of the secrets of the myths, although we must learn to sense their absence, the vastness of what remains undeciphered. To be nostalgic would be like wanting to see, on raising our eyes in the sky, seven Sirens, each intoning a different note around each of the seven heavens. Not only do we not see the Sirens but we can’t even make out the heavens anymore. And yet we can still draw that tattered cloth around us, still immerse ourselves in the mutilated stories of the gods. And in the world, as in our minds, the same cloth is still being woven.’

Bu paylaşımın Türkçe çevirisi henüz mevcut değildir. Yazının tercümesi önceliklendirilsin isterseniz adresine e-posta göndermenizi rica ederiz.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

all rights reserved Via Hygeia 2022