Hunting took many forms in ancient Greece. Sometimes a wild boar would be hunted. Another time a God would take the form of a wild boar to hunt down a human he didn’t like. That is what is depicted here: Ares, the God of War, took the form of a boar to hunt down Adonis. Ares was jealous, because both of them loved Aphrodite.
This book by Roberto Calasso (who died last year) is like an acid trip about the Gods. I’m making the comparison without having used acid, but this is a wild ride.
Over the years, since 1983, Calasso wrote a series of 8 books exploring man’s relationship with myth, the divine, and the idea of transformation (such as turning into a boar). Remarkably, and sadly, not all of those books have yet been translated into English from Italian. Fortunately, this one, published in 2016, is now ready for an eager English-reading public. It is a synthesis of much of his earlier works, written by one of the masters of ancient mythology, and at the peak of his understanding after decades of study. The result is an important and breathtaking exploration of humanity’s deepest desires, all of which were expressed by the ancient Greeks in their (morality) tales of the Gods of Mt. Olympus and the heroes they spawned.
Calasso relates that in a distant time, Man derived myths from looking up at night. “The sky was the place of the past. Lying on their backs, staring into the night at those tremulous pinpricks, they discovered what had happened. From whatever place they observed the sky, they came across the Hunter. The hunter was the trial of memory. Indispensable stories glimmered each night.” There were many hunters: Artemis, Orion, Ares. But not always in the we think. Hunting, as Artemis understood it,” he writes, “was a model for gratuitous action that could not be reduced to any kind of purpose. The animal hunted was not then sacrificed – nor even eaten. Certainly not by Artemis.” He tells us that as the Sanctuary of Artemis, the goddess was depicted clasping in each hand the tail of a lion, and wings sprouted from her shoulders.”
Calasso also spills much ink on Orion. “Hunting is a state. The hunter is in the hunt in the same way that he might be in a cloud. And those who enter the hunt don’t leave it, except through death. It continues in the underworld, where Orion, the Celestial Hunter, still roams with his club, chasing prey.”
He also devotes an entire chapter to Ovid, “a fully fledged modern writer.” For him, everything is material for literature, including the whole of mythology. But he is also and endpoint in ancient literature. “The Metamorphoses is the last appearance of the gods in their full panoply.” Ovid wrote of many love stories involving the gods, but his “theology is as rigorous as it is well disguised. He prefers not to linger on the stories, and even less on their celestial purposes. For him theology must make its pronouncements only in rare and treacherous passages.”
As these passages attest, Calasso is no mere repeater of the ancient myths. He not only studied them, he let them become a part of his own being. He understood what the ancient Greeks meant better than almost anyone who has written about them in recent decades.
In these pages are living, breathing deities and heroes (such as Heracles). He ranges over the works of Plato and Plotinus, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the vexed problem of who mutilated the herms in Athens on a spring morning in 415 BCE. Herms were pillars surmounted by the head a bearded god, and on their front was an erect penis. It was not unusual to find penis statues in ancient Greek temples or, in the case of herms, on street corners.
The myths were told in various forms, including poetry. The poetic word, according to Ovid, “expands into immensity” and does not allow its way to be blocked by any “historical fidelity.” Calasso says “it is hard to express it better.”
Delving into the works of Aristotle, our author finds true wisdom. “Aristotle has tied down what happens during the process of knowledge. The difference between the ‘lover of wisdom’ and the ‘lover of myths’ is reduced to this. Both start off from astonishment, but only lovers of myths remain astonished. He delights in quoting a phrase by Aristotle: “The more isolated and alone I am, the more I have become a friend of myths.” That single phrase, writes Calasso, “stirs the imagination.” It is upon this imagination that Calasso wrote this marvellous book. You will remain astonished by the end of it.
Image credit: Artwork by Nicolas Brunet.
The Celestial Hunter (translated by Richard Dixon) is $20 from Picador Press.