Capsule Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

Mythos

I read this (or rather, heard this) as an audiobook and loved it. The audiobook is read by Stephen himself and as you may expect, is very nicely read. It is also very nicely written, covering a lot of the Greek myths (this is apparently volume 1, many of the myths and legends that have been left out of this one are likely to be in the second volume titled “Heroes”). Stephen does an especially nice job of outlining the successive layers of Chaos, Gaia, Titans and Gods and makes the exuberant (and confusing) mass of origin stories into a coherent overall narrative. His retelling of the myths is full of humor and shows off his vast erudition with a very light touch. Since polytheism is having a bit of a recovery moment thanks to the intellectual (but not demographic) decline of the big four monotheisms (Judeo-Christian-Islamic and Marxist), this retelling is also timely and likely to strike a chord with some people.

Stephen is clearly a fan and this is a great introduction to these stories. And while his style is humorous and light, he is faithful to the sources and this is not some sort of modern “re-telling” that changes stories and characters to make them more contemporary, though being gay himself, he is more than a little eager to point out that the Greeks and their stories include a lot of same sex stuff. But do note that these are only SOME of the Greek myths and many of the most famous stories are not in this book.  Fry tries to impose a semi-chronological order on the world of Greek mythology (from primal chaos to Gaia and Ouranos mating, to Titans, to Gods, to humans, with a minimal detour into the war of the Giants) so this volume mostly deals with the early universe and the first adventures of the Gods and the humans they created. Later stories (such as the ones in the Odyssey and Iliad) will presumably show up in volume 2.

He does make the mistake in the epilogue of claiming that we should read these myths because they are so unique (“no where else in the world“), which is not really true. The ancient Greeks were not uniquely gifted in this matter (Indians in particular will find it surprising to learn that this cultural package and its multifarious many-sidedness seems so unique to Stephen), but of course they ARE the myths that were best known and most influential in Western Europe, and via that, are the best known and most influential for many modern people.  And because, via Greek and Latin and the heritage of Rome, they are so central to the literary traditions of such dominant languages as English, French and Spanish, they will remain relevant for all people who use these languages, whatever their ethnic or geographical origin. So while I am woke enough to point out to Stephen that his beloved Greeks may not be as unique (in the matter of creating and using such stories to illustrate human nature and the nature of the world at large) as he thinks, I am not in the camp of those who think these should be “decentered” or even thrown away “because Whiteness”. For people from Europe and people who mainly read and write in European origin languages (so really, all of us), these remain must-read literature.
I look forward to volume 2.

8 Replies to “Capsule Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry”

  1. Fully agree with the points of the article. What makes ancient Greeks unique is not their mythology or religion but their civilizational achievements. They could well speak an entirely different language family and have a very different religion and mythology, what matters is the civilizational achievements in the end. Think of a scenario in which the Minoan language spreads among Mycenaeans rather than the reverse, that may have led to a civilization similar to the ancient Greek civilization we know but with a non-IE language and with a very different religion and mythology.

  2. Great review, I’ll check this book out. I’m a big fan of myth and mythology and what they can teach us about their host cultures, and a bit of an admirer of Mr Fry as well. I found Neil Gaiman’s recent retelling of stories from Norse Mythology very well written and enchanting as one would expect from him, but quite sparse and it left me wanting more. What books on Norse mythology would some of the other readers of this blog recommend?

    This reminded me of a discussion with a Greek friend in Uni, where I was admiring the many fantastic stories in Greek mythology. He laughed them off as ‘childish’, implying that’s something they outgrew. And he wasn’t a believing christian. I wonder if that’s a commonly held view.

    And if there are any Turkish readers of this blog, what does the average Turk think of Greek history and myths, considering a great many of them took place in modern day Turkey?

    1. @Siddharth

      Greek mythology and Greek history are two largely separate domains despite some intersection between them around the times of the Trojan War. In Turkey Greek mythology is the best known pagan mythology, but even it is poorly known by the average Turk. Greek history, on the other hand, is treated as one of many histories and is much less well known than Ottoman history, which is the most well known history in Turkey by far.

      1. @Onur Dincer
        If you write a history of Turkey , Ottomons have only a space of 500-600 years till 1924. Before that Turkey has been the site of many civilizations, Byzantine, Hellenic, Roman, whose physical remains still bring hordes of tourists, and many other pre-hellenic societies. Apart from physical remains, there are some Greek orthodox , the descendents of Byzantium If Turkish students are deprived of pre-Ottomon history and/or looked at those history as Days of Darkness , etc it will be a grave injustice to students and history in general. Do the present day Turks take pride in Byzantium or Hellenic histories ? Turkey is a place soaked in history for 4000 years

  3. Turkey is not ‘soaked’ in history anymore than Arabia, Americas, China or South Asia. It’s only ”soaked with Greek/Roman history” which seems to have an outsized presence in world academia, probably due to global western colonization that still persists via media and the English language.

    1. @S Qureishi

      Territories of Turkey hosted the Hittite civilization, which had the first written records in any IE language (the Hittite records begin around the 18th-17th centuries BC). It also hosted, apart from Greeks, post-Bronze Age major powers with written records like Phrygians, Lydians and Urartians before being incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire and then the Hellenistic civilization. So Turkey is indeed soaked in history for almost 4000 years. Though you are right that the Greco-Roman history of Turkey is the one that gets the most attention in the West and the world in general.

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