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The Greek Myths Transcend the Ages

March 30, 2001|KEVIN CANFIELD | HARTFORD COURANT

Last week, British director Guy Ritchie told the world media that "all the answers" to questions about his wife Madonna's violent new music video (shown only once on MTV and VH1) could be found in Greek mythology.

At first blush, it seems like a novel approach: Instead of a music video filled with the requisite bling-bling and gyrating backsides, give MTV a story that sets modern-day characters off on a path so tragic that even Homer himself could appreciate it.

But when you think about it, what isn't based on Greek mythology these days?

Take, for example, the recent movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a film that its creators, Ethan and Joel Coen, say is based on "The Odyssey." Though some critics and scholars see little evidence of a link between Homer's epic and the film, there was apparently enough of one to net the film an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

Or how about the ubiquitous Harry Potter books? The series features several characters--including Hermione Granger and Argus Filch--named after and, to a certain extent, modeled on Greek mythic figures.

And while millions of young readers unknowingly get a primer on Greek legend and myth, theatergoers in London and Paris have made plays about Medea, the scorned and murderous mythic princess, two of 2001's hottest tickets.

You might be surprised that Greek mythology is such a part of both high and low culture, but Roger Travis, an assistant professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at the University of Connecticut, says you shouldn't be. "This mode of story--violent things like curses and people in great power doing horrible things and getting punished for it--it's a story that human beings need to tell themselves and each other," Travis said.

In fact, Greek mythology is almost everywhere and has long been a big part of American culture. For example:

* A major publisher (Hyperion) and a cable TV network (Odyssey) take their names from Greek mythology.

* The Doors' Jim Morrison wrote songs based on Greek mythology, and Martha Graham built dances around myths.

* In his famous 1960 profile in the New Yorker, John Updike likened Ted Williams to the mythological Jason, Achilles and Nestor, and as recently as this month, Frank Deford compared St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa to Greek goddess Athena (huh?) in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

And if Greek myths are timeless enough to have inspired the work of James Joyce ("Ulysses") and T.S. Eliot (part of "The Waste Land"), aren't they good enough for today's creative minds?

Filmmakers seem to be most noticeably affected by Greek myths--so much so that Travis uses recent movies in his "Classical Mythology" course to make points about age-old themes.

"I want to point out that most of what was myth for the Greeks and is really still myth for us can be found in popular culture," he said, "and storytelling in popular culture is mostly in the movies."

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