The Search for Meaning

Demeter Mourning Persephone
Demeter Mourning Persephone

“Human beings like to tell stories.”
–Professor Peter Struck, Associate Professor, Classical Studies
University of Pennsylvania

I just finished an online Greek mythology course with Coursera, a web site that partners with universities throughout the world to offer free online courses. (If you haven’t checked it out yet, you should.)

I took the class because I’m creating a unique mythological chronology in my new novel, CUT, and wanted to learn about myth from a classicist, and directly from texts that have survived for thousands of years. It’s one thing to read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (which is brilliant), or get a summary of the gods and heroes from Bulfinch’s Mythology. It’s quite another to read The Odyssey translated from its original Latin into a book-length epic poem written over three thousand years ago.

It wasn’t easy. I’ve never been a particularly good scholar and it’s been years since I had to sit for regular lectures followed up by (very difficult) reading and weekly quizzes. I went into the class thinking I’d get a refresher on all the old myths that I love like the one where Aphrodite is born from the foam of the sea (but I didn’t realize that the foam was created by the genitals of Heaven – cut off by his own son Kronos at the request of his mother, the Earth). Don’t try to figure it out…it just IS. The main thing I learned from this ten week class is how much I don’t know and, surprisingly, how much of the writing I was able to relate to, particulary the tale of Odysseus.

I didn’t really know much about Greek heroes before I took this class, which is funny because when you write an epic fantasy book, it’s all about the hero’s journey. It’s Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (in Oz), Bastian in Fantasia…well, you get the picture. But before all of these epic heroes, there was Odysseus trying to make his way home from Troy but faced with the wrath of Poseidon (Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, who was Poseidon’s son). Homer says this about Odysseus:

More than all other men, that man was born for pain.

This line in Homer’s Odyssey occurs early on. It’s a foreshadowing of the trials and losses that Odysseus will suffer before he finally reaches the shores of his beloved Ithaca. But if you take out the words “men” and “man” and substitute them with “creatures” and “creature” then it becomes a universal truth. We are, all of us, born for pain. We are doomed with self awareness and, because of that, plagued by an endless search for meaning.

Why is there loss? Why is there sickness? Why must the hero struggle?

There is something exquisitely comforting about reading stories written thousands of years ago that speak to the same uniquely human anxieties as we experience today.

Our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times.
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth,
turn as the days turn. [Fagles, 150]

The hero’s journey is our own journey. The eternal search for meaning in life and  death, and the perpetual struggle to understand our place in the world are part of this. The discovery of our own frailties, and how we overcome them (or not) is also part of this journey. The gods themselves experience it. The myth of Demeter, who loses her daughter to Hades and mourns this loss bitterly, is – at its root – the tale of a mother’s love and sorrow.

But golden Demeter
sat there, far away from all the blessed ones,
waiting, wasting away with longing for her daughter.
She made that a most dreadful and bitter year
for people on the land that feeds them, and the earth
sprouted no seed [The Homeric Hymns, Rayor, 300]

The goddess was bereft and because of her sorrow, everyone on earth suffered. For those of you that know the myth, you know that Demeter gets her daughter Persephone back for two-thirds of the year, but for the remaining third, Persephone is lost to her. Nothing grows during that time.

A mother’s sorrow = bleak, desolate winter.

Damn. I get it. We all get it!  There’s a lot we can learn from reading these ancient texts about the stories that were told over and over again so many centuries ago. It’s a kind of shared consciousness, a collective history of what it means to be human. My summer goal is to finish reading all of Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis before rereading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It’s a labor of love.