Roman theatre masks credit perseomed

The First Nightmares

I almost feel guilty for having a fascination for Greek and Roman mythology. Even here in Britain there were cycles of myths and hierarchies of gods that were effectively overwritten by Roman colonisation. Some of the mythology of ancient Britain was preserved, but it is virtually unknown among the country’s present inhabitants. Other cultures have their own struggles in keeping their imaginative inheritance alive.

But it was the classical world whose stories infected my bloodstream as a child and never left. I think I was six when I bought a book about monsters, as an act of rebellion against a stultifying conventional life. Among the pictures of dinosaurs, Loch Ness and Godzilla, I found a section on Greek Myths. A double-page spread showed a picture of a Cyclops; angry, hairy and with a single eye that seemed to take up most of his face. The text told the story of how Odysseus had been captured and put aside for dinner but escaped by blinding the Cyclops with a stake and hiding under some sheep. It was perhaps a bit of a grisly story for a six-year-old (this book was where I first learnt the word “devour”, which was what monsters did to humans), but my head was already full of aliens and killer robots and I knew that this would be a story I would carry around for the rest of my life.

But I didn’t really get to grips with classical mythology until I was a teenager. I had lied my way out of school by claiming some objectively unverifiable ailment, and finding myself just as bored at home, I reached for a copy of Pears’ Cyclopaedia. (This was a peculiarly British one-volume annual encyclopaedia, containing information on various random topics. Everyone had a decades-old edition, but no one quite knew how it had got there.) It contained an entire section on Greek mythology, and I finally got a crash course in a subject that still fascinates me today. The names alone pointed to another world, hopelessly exotic to someone who had never travelled much further than the local sweet shop. Zeus, Aphrodite, Persephone, all were as enjoyable to say as to read about.

And the stories themselves were utterly compelling. Ariadne’s thread, Icarus’s wings, Heracles’s brute force, Odysseus’s wooden horse—every time I read one of these myths for the first time, I felt as if I had already heard it, as if I were finding them in an unvisited part of my own mind rather than on the page. I felt as if these were the original nightmares, the primordial ingredients with which we cooked our more modern versions.

I’ve spent my life discovering more about these myths, even learning the original languages to read them in. The more I learnt about them, the more I discovered something odd; they were never written in stone. Whatever story you found in one source, someone else had come up with another, which sometimes complemented the original but frequently contradicted it. No one felt as if they had to tell the same story over and over in the same way; they could use the characters and situations for their own purposes, to make their own points and emphases. Homer and Ovid weren’t writing religious texts, they were writing fan fiction. The effect was to keep these symbols alive, in a state of flux, even in their original forms. And this had the result of passing the baton to us—we can continue to write these myths for our own age.

I wonder sometimes why the Greeks and Romans invented them in the first place; what need they answered, what gap in their lives they filled. They hardly work as a protoscience, especially not in a culture whose science was advanced enough to measure the size of the earth. Nor do they quite work as religious parables, unless the religion’s adherents are free to change the scriptures to suit themselves. It seems to me that ancient civilisations knew that their knowledge had limits, and they filled it with stories. The unknowable was an opportunity for creativity and imagination, for the mind to dance in the dark places. Nowadays we do the opposite; we fill the gaps in our knowledge with certainty. In fact, I’d almost argue that certainty about a subject is a sign of its unknowability. No one believes in Euler’s Equation with the same fervour and passion as they believe in their religious and political views. Perhaps we’d do better to follow the ancient civilisations; to know when we can’t know, and to reach instead for another nightmare.



Photo credit: perseomed

Neil James Hudson

Neil James Hudson is a UK-based writer who has published around sixty stories and a novel On Wings of Pity. He lives in the middle of nowhere and works in York as a charity shop manager, where he one day hopes to sell unwanted copies of his own books.

Previous PostIn Conversation: Christopher Muscato and Hiria Dunning