Sometimes I wish that we lived in the world of Greek mythology: that horses could fly, that a man was able to carry the earth on his shoulders, that there were Muses to inspire creativity. If men were able to carry their unborn children in their thigh until it was time for the birth, I doubt you would hear any protests from the mothers of the world. And wouldn’t it be astonishing to see the sun lugged across the sky by a man in a four-horse chariot? Of course there would be a number of oddities occurring too (swans seducing women, one-eyed giants wandering amongst us) and countless horrors (the king of the underworld enslaving a young girl as his bride, creatures that lure men into lethal waters with their songs), but maybe the adventure of it all, the amazing creatures and feats, not to mention the indisputably more interesting newspaper stories would make it all worth it.
Traveling around the Peloponnese, the mountainous peninsula that makes up Southern Greece, we heard these sorts of stories at every site and city we visited. The area itself is named after Pelops, grandson of the renowned god Zeus, whose story is a gruesome one. When Pelops’ father Tantalus was lucky enough to host the gods for a dinner party, he killed Pelops and boiled him in a cauldron for dinner, offering his son’s body to the gods as a sort of sacrifice. Luckily for Pelops, the gods realized and restored him back to life. Only the goddess Demeter, who was distraught over her daughter Penelope’s abduction to the underworld, accidentally ate a piece of Pelops. When he was returned to his body, his left shoulder was missing, but the god Hephaestus generously constructed him a new one from ivory. Tantalus, naturally, was punished for the atrocity and Pelops went on to become king of the Greek town Pisa. I only wish that the namesake for my hometown, King Louis XI, had a story as jaw dropping.
Within the Peloponnese we saw the remains of Mycenae, which was a major city and military stronghold in ancient Greek civilization. Only foundations of structures and walls remain, but if you squint a bit and use your imagination, you can picture what it might have looked like back in 1300 BC. A few of the walls in Mycenae were so high, some of my classmates asked how it was possible for the people of ancient Greece to construct such huge, durable walls. Naturally, it was the Cyclops’ doing. Unable to comprehend how the walls had been built if not by the one-eyed giants known as the Cyclops, the myth was born. The walls are known as Cyclopean walls today due to that fantastical myth.
Even if we don’t currently live in the world of Gods and Titans and Olympians, sometimes I like to imagine that their stories are our true history. In Greek, like in many languages other than English, the words for history and story are the same. It makes sense when you think about how difficult it is for us to truly know what happened in the ancient past. And in that case, why not imagine the impossible? Maybe there really were one-eyed giants that constructed the walls of Mycenae. Maybe poor Penelope is still trapped in the underworld with Hades today. And maybe, just maybe, if you look hard enough, you’ll see Hermes in his chariot tonight, urging his horses onward as they carry the sun beneath the horizon.
This article appeared in a October 2011 issue of Drury University's Mirror newspaper.