eat it, edith   7 comments

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i’m pissed off at edith hamilton. i’ve disliked her for a long time, but i’ve upped the ante. she might warrant a post-mortem smiting. (i assume she’s dead.) and anyone as smugly condescending, and outright nastily and frequently WRONG as EH deserves to have a very literal fire lit under their ass.

it’s a sad fact that few of us can go to the original source material and read it. we rely on translations, and re-interpretations, and re-tellings, and scholarly dissections of the translations and re-interpretations and re-tellings. most pagans and pretty much all hellenics are familiar with being on a list or in a group or otherwise faffing about the intrawebZ and being told, or telling someone, or watching a n00b oodle in, ask ‘where do i start?’ and being directed to go forth and immerse themselves in myth. and, to my rising frustration and borderline ire, friggin’ edith hamilton is often the go-to.

she should not be.

she should be the anti-n00b source.

in fact, when i am queen, i won’t be down with book burnings because they’re, you know, dick-ish. but books like EH’s ‘mythology’ will be collected and stored in a Very Special Library, known as The Library In Which Stupid Asinine No-Good Books Live Solely In Order To Be Scorned and Derided. i shall declare an annual festival in which EH will be solemnly then hilariously ritually insulted, spat upon, laughed at, and finally tarred and feathered and drummed out of town in effigy. 

now, many of you may be saying ‘whoa back there, cowgirl. you can’t be dissing different takes on the myths. myths are not canonical, and it’s okay to have different takes on them, and for people to disagree.’

to which i say, ‘duh.’ (sorry. that’s condescending, and i’m currently toasting EH for that very character flaw. i’m an imperfect being. i’ll improve on that tomorrow.)

i’m not pissed at her take on the myths (although i dislike it intensely and her overall assessment and presentation of the Great Myths only validates my position that she is a skank.) as a bard at heart, i really do like that there are variants and new interpretations and twists and back-handed looks and underlying layers peeled away and strobe lights being shone into dark corners.

what i friggin’ hate about EH is that she has no respect, or apparently even liking, for her subject material.

and a baseline standard for who gets to be the go-to author should be ‘respect and liking for the subject material.’

how did this stutterbrain ever get such wide circulation? even bulfinch, which is kinda a big snooze, is better. maybe back in the day there WASN’T anything better (my little, brown edition is copyrighted 1942.) but wait! my much-beloved and much-derided robert graves was her contemporary. way more dense and less accessible, and far more controversial, yes. 

‘but the children!’, thunders the crowd. ‘the children can’t read that sex stuff in graves! and he’s toooooo hard.’

i suppose there’s something to it, although i never spared my children from ‘too hard for kids’ (i did, i confess, censor the sex stuff when they were little, and edit it rather heavily later.)

but i just can’t condone giving kids shitty material, and certainly today there’s way better out there. my own favorite is richard martin, whom i doubt thinks the gods are real, just like the vast majority of folks. but he LIKES them. he respects them. it comes through in his writing.

i’ll get back to my poor old graves anon. boy, does he get toasted on the pagan lists. i want to restore graves to a few more bookshelves.

and once everybody throws out their stinky edith hamilton (don’t donate them. children might get ahold of them) they’ll have a nice ‘robert graves’ greek myths’-sized hole on their bookshelves.

did i say don’t burn books? burn this one. and curse her ritually while you do.

or do what i do, keep it around to stab periodically.

it’s hard to share with you just what nuggets of her introduction offend me so, without posting the whole shebang. let me try to winnow out which ones are really REALLY farked. 

‘When THE STORIES were being shaped, (emphasis mine- like we know what was going on when the myths were born? like, further back than the neolithic for at least a few of them?) we are given to understand (by whom??), little distinction had yet been made between the real and the unreal.’

yeah, ‘those people’ who actually lived in the natural world couldn’t quite make out what was biting their stupid, primordial asses.

‘the imagination was vividly alive and not checked by The Reason.’

and yet she follows it with ‘horrors lurked in the primeval forest, NOT NYMPHS AND NAIADS. terror lived there, with its close attendant, Magic, and its most common defense, Human Sacrifice. Mankind’s chief hope of escaping the wrath of whatever divinities were abroad lay in some magical rite, SENSELESS BUT POWERFUL, or in some offering made AT THE COST OF PAIN AND GRIEF.’

i shit you not.

now, we actually do have bits and pieces of pre-classical prehistoric life, and it’s very likely that a lot of it would look pretty dark to a pampered modern (like myself.) but this is some pretty sweeping statements to be impressing upon impressionable young minds.

however, says edith, the greeks pooh-poohed all of this (fictional) mayhem which haunts EH’s doubtless titillated imagination. she does stick a connector in there ‘of course they too once lived a savage life, ugly and brutal.’ the greeks rose above the ‘filth and fierceness’ to give a clean, sanitized, very secular view of the world, just like edith’s! no wonder she decided to write about them.

so, having dispensed with the prehistoric savages, she takes on ‘her’ greeks. ‘with the coming forward of greece, mankind became the center of the universe, the most important thing in it.’ (erm…..gnauthi seaton?) 

‘the greeks made the gods in their own image.’ (what sources are there telling us that the greeks made the gods? at least prior to Age of Philosophers, dudes who bandied the question about but did not presume to make definitive statements like this?) ‘until then, the gods had had NO SEMBLANCE OF REALITY.’ EH’s egyptian gods are ‘beyond the power of imagination to endow with movement’ (erm…..the Opening of the Mouth ritual?), ‘a woman with a cat’s head suggesting inflexible, inhuman cruelty.’ ‘a monstrous mysterious sphinx, aloof from all that lives.’ and my favorite, ‘In Mesopotamia, bas-reliefs of bestial shapes unlike any beast ever known…….creations of artists who were intent upon producing something never seen except in their own minds, the very consummation of unreality.’

yes.

but the greeks invented human-y gods, so ‘the universe became rational.’

she goes on to tell us how the ancient greeks weren’t interested in anything they couldn’t see, and how hermes and apollon were made beautiful by sculptors who ‘had no wish to create some fantasy shaped in their own minds.’ the gods were just dudes. the ancient greeks got a huge yuk out of zeus and his zany marital shenanigans, and hera was a ‘stock figure of comedy.’ it made the gods ‘companionable.’

she really thinks that’s it’s extent of it.

‘that is the miracle of greek mythology- a humanized world, men freed from the paralyzing fear of an omnipotent Unknown. the terrifying incomprehensibilities which were worshipped elsewhere, and the FEARFUL SPIRITS WITH WHICH EARTH, AIR AND SEA SWARMED, were BANNED FROM GREECE.’

so, like, no erinyes. 

i guess.

‘it may seem odd to say that the men who made the myths disliked the irrational and had a love for facts, but it is true.’

yes, edith, it is. it’s odd that a ‘scholar’ has such a rudimentary grasp of what constitutes ‘irrational’ and ‘fact.’

magic is almost non-existent, she tells us. no men practice it, and the only two female witches are ‘delightful, not horrible’ (i guess medea’s more homicidal tendencies are irrelevant.) theoroi are of zero importance, which is why odysseus chooses to kill the priest but save the poet.

yes, that’s all there was to it. odysseus, that secular humanist, who had no truck with gods or the ‘terrifying irrational.’ (forget about books 8-12.) 

oh, and you’ll love this, especially with anthesteria breathing its cold breath down our necks….’ghosts, too, which have played so large and fearsome a part in other lands, never appear on earth in any greek story. the greeks were not afraid of the dead- “the piteous dead”, the odyssey calls them.’ which of course, makes them insignificant and of no consideration. never mind the various rituals, remembrances, celebrations and wardings-off of the dead.

‘the world of greek mythology was not a place of terror for the human spirit’ (stop your wailing, marsyus.) ‘the whole divine company, with a very few and for the most part not important exceptions, were entrancing beautiful WITH A HUMAN BEAUTY, and nothing humanly beautiful is really terrifying.’ (snork.) ‘the gods-become-human were for a long time a very slight improvement upon their worshipers.’ (almost zero distinction between thnatoi and athanatoi.) ‘hector is nobler by far than any of the heavenly beings, and andromache is infinitely to be preferred to athena or aphrodite.’

yes, that’s the assessment from a classical ‘expert.’ a kindergarten literal reading. 

:/

‘a very limited sense of right and wrong existed in homer’s heaven.’

and…..oh gods, help me……’hera is called ‘cow-faced’ as if the adjective had somehow stuck to her through all her changes from a divine cow to the VERY HUMAN QUEEN OF HEAVEN.’

she….she doesn’t understand the difference between an archaic epithet, and a kindergarten insult.

gorgons, hydras and chimaeras only exist to give heroes something to slaughter.

and (you’re going to love this one) ‘according to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion.’

nothing. to do. with. religion.

it’s all etiological. that’s it. no need to dig further.

some myths are early science, she explains. but….get this!…..’many so-called myths explain nothing at all. these tales are PURE ENTERTAINMENT.’ she gives pygmalian and galatea as an example, and……oh my gads…….the quest of the golden fleece. 

and most insulting and fucking STUPID of all- orpheus and eurydice.

like, the entire orphic religion is just a lark. 

now, i’ll fight for this idiot’s right to believe- and even spout- whatever venal absurdities she likes. but for the love of the baby dionysos zagreus, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE stop recommending her.

she doesn’t believe in the gods, which is fine, but she also holds them in the direst contempt. and her utter lack of the tiniest vestiges of comprehension about the greek people, and how they held their myths dear, and how to unpack a myth even to a small level, put EH in the company of really bad vampire fanfic writers. she’s not a ‘good place to start.’ she’s a train wreck.

and yet people are quick to pan poor old graves and his magnum opus, which is one of my most treasured library possessions. does he write with an agenda? you bet. is his agenda wacky? oh, over the top. are his footnotes a hot mess? only go there if you want to have fun.

but graves undertook the heraklean task of attempting to put some sort of chronology to the myths, myths that he LOVED. adored. he may or may not have worshipped the theoi, but he sure as hell worshipped the myths, enough to pour years and years of insanely single-minded focus into his 
Work. and of course he doesn’t succeed. the myths will never be contained in that way. but dear gods and little fishes, he shoehorns it all in there, and gives some sort of cohesion, and a few insights that are so awesome i have to think they’re divinely inspired.

i love him. i love his love for the material. i never see EH’s snotty condescension for the ugly, brutish, disgusting pre-humans, for the theoi, and for the greek people she claims to put such rational light around but doesn’t understand one iota.

give me graves. and murray. and walker. give me the lunatics who take crazy ideas and run with them. and bless the scholars who come after and debunk the craziest of the threads, but we’re still left with dazzling traces of glory, and flashes of light into the murk of pre-history. 

i don’t think most scholars, from the last century to the ones publishing now, are believers. sarah iles johnston just caused a stink in the hellenic community by distancing herself from hellenic pagans, especially clarifying that her ‘hekate soteira’ is not a how-to book for hekate worshippers. i doubt my beloved elizabeth vandiver has a shrine set up at home, or believes that her awesome lectures are hermes-inspired. i don’t expect our community to try and limp along with the as-yet too-small body of work produced by hellenistoi.

but gods above and below, people, at least try to stick to works by people who LIKE our theoi. 

we need to get writing.

khairete

suz

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Posted January 20, 2014 by suzmuse in Uncategorized

7 responses to “eat it, edith

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  1. You know…I’ve been avoiding reading her book…you’ve just given me several great reasons. 🙂

  2. I just wish I could read you all day, every day.

  3. I remember when I took mythology in high school that even our teacher had us avoid her.

  4. Actually, Sarah Iles Johnston went much further than that. For example, she derided modern Hellenic Pagans who embrace egalitarian ideas, which, according to Johnston “does not sound like our Greeks at all.” But “our Greeks”, as Johnston must surely know, not only had “democracia”, but had very radical versions of democracy, including those that explicitly championed the notion of “isonomia”, which literally means “equality”. There is a lot of drek (and often rather spiteful drek) in Johnston’s paper “Whose Gods Are These?”, and very little, if any, redeeming substance.

  5. pthelms, that gives me hope, maybe teachers are using discernment and judgment even as they’re given little recourse in their curricula. apuleius platonicus, i was pretty taken aback by ‘whose gods are these?’ i never expected solidarity from her, but i agree this paper was pretty dang spiteful.
    she might just need a good rant………
    khairete
    suz

  6. Pingback: Not all scholars treat their subject matter with condescension. | The House of Vines

  7. I loved your rant, Suz. The academic studying an ancient people must have respect for them and must leave their own beliefs at the door before they even begin their own study. This was especially the case with the early academics — they did not realize that their own inner beliefs would defile their studies. Much of this is because of American/British/Christian Triumphalism.

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