Saturday, October 29, 2005

the Myth of Myth

Mary Beard has a good, readable review of a number of books which rework classical myth. One of them, Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad (which she actually enjoyed), led her to lash out at a weak 'feminist' reading, and then at Robert Graves, whom she blames:

The only blot on this brilliant book is a chapter entitled "An Anthropology Lecture". This insists, through the mouth of the murdered maids, that deep beneath the story of Penelope lies the cult of the Mother Goddess, and that anyone who does not accept the matriarchal substrate of Greek myth has not learned the lessons of feminism. This is complete rubbish (most feminists I know think that matriarchy is itself a myth invented by patriarchal culture). But I suspect that Robert Graves has a lot to answer for here.

Graves was one of the few people who believed Butler's claims about the authoress of the Odyssey, and his bonkers White Goddess is a founding tract of New Age matriarchy. More influential, though, is his Greek Myths, which has been the standard reference work for half a century now (and is acknowledged by Atwood as a "crucial" source). The success of this book is a mystery; it is dry and dense, with almost as much footnote as text over its 800 pages. It is hard not to suspect that most buyers, attracted by the combination of famous author and authoritative title, do not get very far in actually reading it. But you need to skim only a few pages of the introduction to get the clear message that the Great Mother is the key to most of what will follow.

A former professor of mine once remarked that Graves's The White Goddess was that greatest parody of scholarship he'd ever read.

Beard is right when she notes that there is no orthodox version of myth, which means you need to be careful when reading what anyone says about a given myth. Which sources are they using, combining, leaving out, and why?

It doesn't help anything to manufacture narratives 'informed' by theory.

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