An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 122

Odyssey of Homer, the sagas of the early Norsemen, the Nihongi of Japan, the tribal lays of the American Indians, all celebrate the triumphs, loves, wars, and destinies of the gods of these several peoples.

It has often been thought peculiar that mythology should have continued to be the theme of poetry many centuries after the faiths of Greece and Rome had become extinct. This was because at the period of the Renaissance, or rebirth of learning and art, in the later Middle Ages, it became the fashion for literary men to model their writings upon the classical authors of antiquity. This custom was nowhere more powerful than in France, whence it was borrowed by English authors, who began to make large use of classical and mythological allusions in the wondrous era of letters known as the Elizabethan. Thus we find the works of Marlowe, Fletcher, Shakespeare, Massinger, Ford, full of allusions to the principal figures of Latin and Greek mythology. From that period, indeed, down to our own day the beautiful and heroic myths of Greece have been the subject upon which many English poets have exercised their art; and those of them who have not woven tales around these exquisite fables have made plenteous use[Pg 276] of them in the illustration and ornamentation of more homely themes. The works of all our great poets abound in allusions co the central figures of Greek mythology. Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Shelley, Byron, Keats have all embodied in their verse, or frequently allude to, the immortal tales of Hellas; and, advancing more nearly to our own time, Tennyson, Morris, and Swinburne, as well as many minor singers, have written of the deeds and loves and deaths of the mighty heroes around whom the ancient epics ebb and flow.

The following paragraphs describe the manner in which the myths of ancient Greece and Rome have been made use of by English poets, so that the reader may be enabled to regard the myth in the light of poetry and the poem in the light of mythology. Thus a double and mutual light may be cast upon both myth and song. Let us take as an example Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Whoso knows the poem but not the myth from which it took its origin is robbed of much pleasure in reading the sublime verse, the ecstatic measures and magical lyrics with their constant allusions to the greater mythological characters. Who, for example, are lone and Panthea? What is the nature of Demogorgon? For what crime against Jupiter is Prometheus, the Titan,

Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured?

Unless these allusions are understood, much of the beauty of such a work is absolutely lost. Let us see, then, how some of our greatest singers have regarded the denizens of Olympus and the mortals whose destinies they swayed.

Ere yet Jupiter seized on the lordship of Heaven and earth, Ophion and Eurynome ruled in Olympus. They were dethroned by Saturn and Rhea, who in turn were hurled from power by Zeus, or Jupiter, and Juno. Keats draws a touching picture of the old, forsaken god Saturn, left to meditations of a lost empire:

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
[Pg 277] Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head,
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer's day
Robs not one light seed from the feather'd grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deaden'd move
By reason of his fallen divinity,
Spreading a shade.