Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.
Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter.
The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.
Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.
Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia. It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing. If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.
Jasmine learned about a showing of A Quiet Passion, a biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson, at Salem Cinema and suggested it as something we could do. I said of course, since Dickinson was one of the writers we studied in my American lit. class this semester. At 4:30, we went to Omega Pizza, our favorite pizza place in Salem, and then caught the 5:50 shuttle downtown. When we got there, we still had about an hour until the movie so I passed the time by playing Jasmine some of my latest musical obsessions. The movie began at 7:20 and was shown in the tiny theater where we saw The True 1692.
A Quiet Passion is a visually stunning and beautifully made film. It’s cinematography is exquisite, combining the natural beauty celebrated in Dickinson’s poetry and the prim mid victorian domesticity in which she and her family lived. It was also a brilliant choice to include voice overs of her poetry. The film was a fascinating psychological portrait of this most enigmatic of American writers, showing her as a rebellious school girl, an old maid who still harbored some hopes of romance, then as a sickly recluse. Cynthia Nixon gave a compelling and nuanced performance as Emily Dickinson, managing to be both a shy, uptight, nineteenth century spinster, and a feisty, outspoken protofeminist. I could easily sympathize with the trials that Dickinson went through: her literary ambitions, health problems, and romantic frustrations.
Some of my biggest complaints with the movie are that the movie was very short on coherent story and mostly seemed to be series of vignettes. It also had a tendency to drag. But the thing which stuck in my throat was how the adulterous affair of Emily’s brother Austin is pretty much dismissed as “he’s only human” and her outraged reaction to it is treated as her needing to lighten up. Adultery and its casual treatment and justification are things which I cannot abide.
I had to attend the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as part of the requirements for my creative writing class and I decided to attend an event called “Donuts and Death. Jasmine and I took a taxi to the Hawthorne Hotel, where the event was held. It was called “Donuts and Death” because it focused on Emily Dickinson’s sad poetry and was held in the morning (9:30 to be exact) and donuts were served. The speaker puts these poems in the context of real life events in Dickinson’s life, her romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, one of her father’s friends. Dickinson almost married Lord late in her life but health problems and distance prevented it (marrying Lord would have meant taking a gruelling journey from Amherst to Salem). Also discussed was the divide in the Emily Dickinson scholar community between the version of her poems edited by her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and the version edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austen’s mistress.
Gingerbread donuts made from Emily’s own recipe (apparently she was quite the baker) were promised but were not provided. In their place were some delicious treats from a celebrated Amherst bakery. The speaker was hysterical and made the event a blast. I was inspired to go to Wicked Good Books and buy a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. At eleven o’clock, I was picked up by my dad; Jasmine stayed beyond to explore more of the festival. As dad and I drove away, I read from my favorite Dickinson Poem “some keep the Sabbath…”
*** Scroll Down for English Translation***
J’aimais l’automne, si tu le croirais.
Tout ce que j’ai toujours voulu était que le temps accélérerait et de ne passer si lentement.
Mais maintenant qu’il est passé, je ne le récupérerai jamais.
Je me souviens de marcher dans un champ de fleurs,
En marchant côte à côte, main dans la main.
Maintenant, il n’y a que des tas de feuilles mortes
Et des serpents dans l’herbe.
Je suis toute seule.
Mon coeur appartiendra toujours à celui que j’ai laissé derrière moi
Je voulais rester; j’espère qu’il souvient de cela.
Sa chanson ne peut plus me réveiller
Il restera seul ici
Les feuilles sont vertes sur l’arbre, jusqu’à ce qu’ils
Deviennent marron et souffler loin
Les fleurs fleurissent jusqu’à ce qu’elles pourrissent
C’est le chemin de toutes choses;
Même la mienne.
To think, I used to like the Fall.
All I ever want was for time to speed up and not go by so slowly.
But now that it was passed, I will never get it back.
I remember walking through a field of flowers,
walking side by side, hand in hand.
Now, there is only piles of dead leaves
and snakes in the grass.
I am all alone.
My heart will always belong to to the one
I left behind me.
I wished to stay; I hope he remembers that.
His song cannot wake me anymore.
He will stay here all alone.
Leaves are green on the trees until
they turn brown and blow away
Flowers bloom until they rot
It is the way of all things; even mine