“The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”

Evelyn de Morgan, Cadmus and Harmonia, 1877

In the first of twelve, long chapters of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso retells the story of the abduction of Europa by Zeus and repeatedly poses the question: “But how did it all begin?” Ostensibly this question refers to the mythical history leading up to the abduction but more generally to the philosophical question: how did our world and everything in it begin.

Creation myths are an important function of myth, but Calasso’s concern is with the already existing Olympian gods. A more pertinent question is the genesis of Greek mythology itself, which first emerged into public consciousness in the context of ritual recitations of Homeric poems at Athenian festivals, initiated by the tyrant Pisistratus (600-527 BC). The Iliad and the Odyssey are thought to have been composed either by Homer or by several unknown poets prior to 800 BC before the advent of writing in Greece. The subject of these epic poems, the Trojan wars, has been dated to around 1190 BC. The Olympian gods, and their innumerable supporting cast of divine and human characters, therefore, have come down to us as literary inventions rather than in the form of the monolithic, mostly animistic deities of ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia.

Presumably, there are twelve chapters corresponding to the Olympic pantheon, but the content of each chapter in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony displays no such systematic classification. Instead the narrative follows the whimsical preferences of the author in elucidating his ideas. In retelling seemingly random selected myths, Calasso indulges in imaginative fiction, attributing thoughts to the characters, as would a modern novelist, like Mary Renault.

For example, Calasso writes:

Ariadne was dazzled by the divine glory the god offered her. And secretly she sneered at Theseus, who had brought that glory on her by his very treachery. (p19)

This imitates the Roman poet Ovid, who puts similar words into Ariadne’s mouth, saying,

Why did I weep like a country-girl, his faithlessness has been my gain? (Fasti, Book III)

This same technique reinforces the literary character of the myths that have come down to us from their principle sources. But clearly Calasso’s work is not a novel. Rather a kind of hybrid creation. Part of the intention is to show that particular types of myths (for example, abductions) belong to a general class of events, which may have been based on the historical adventures of free-booting bandits and traders in the Mediterranean region.

Calasso tells us, “In any Cretan story, there’s a bull at the beginning and a bull at the end.” (p.21) One is tempted to remove the indefinite articles and recall that “all Cretans are liars”, like those who practice mythopoeia, or the making of myths in the first place. He points out that, “No other woman, or goddess had so many deaths as Ariadne”, underlining the fact that myths are inherently fluid and unreliable if viewed as proto-history.

In assessing any work about mythology, one is curious to know what approach the author has adopted. For the early Christian writers, the still active stories of Greco-Roman mythology posed serious competition and had to be denounced as utterly false. They adopted the euhemerist argument that the stories of the old religions were nothing more than fables. Frazer’s Golden Bough is a work of comparative religion, an anthropological study, where the author says that religion and science gradually precipitated from the magical thought of primitive societies.

Frazer’s unifying thesis was that the vegetative myths of Nemi were of universal import. Like Frazer and later writers, Robert Graves took the view that mythology had been invented to explain and support ancient rituals, rather than having any basis in heroic deeds by actual historic persons. In his literary work, however, refered to as a novel by critics, Calasso seems to proceed without such unifying theses.

Max Weber clung to the validity of religious ideas and treated Indian mythology as the repository of immutable truths. Jung refined this approach by finding mythological archetypes inherent in the collective unconscious. The atheist Freud’s use of the Oedipus myth was more by way of analogy than a belief in the living presence of mythical forces, finding rather that actual sexual and power relations in family life gave rise to various fantasies.

19th Century writers in all disciplines were overshadowed by their classical education, as well as by Christianity, and expressed themselves fluently with reference to the Greco-Roman myths in which they had been schooled.

Joseph Campbell, in his non-fiction text, Hero with a Thousand Faces, adopts the Jungian idea, and uses the motif of the hero as its organising principle. Campbell provides us with a prologue explaining his approach and a definite structure, together with a detailed index.

Roberto Calasso offers no such road map or index, although there is a detailed list of sources to overt quotations in the text, which is perhaps less interruptive than the more usual footnotes. For those who seek a more detailed exposition of the myths, such a list in invaluable. The sources are very extensive and include most of the classics of ancient Greek and Roman literature.

A hint about the author’s attitude to mythology is given in Chapter III:

Man’s relationship with the gods passed through two regimes: first conviviality, then rape. The third regime, the modern one, is that of indifference, but with the implication that the gods have already withdrawn, and, hence, if they are indifferent in our regard, we can be indifferent as to their existence or otherwise. (p.53).

This keeping open the possibility that the gods are still active in our world runs counter to the rationalism of Plato and to the irreligious materialism of the present day, but is appropriate in a work which the publishers have classified as fiction/literature. Calasso’s intention is to pass on his love and understanding of mythology as a perennial fund of wisdom, which is still pertinent to our lives today, rather than engaging in sterile debate about the genesis of religions past and present.

To reinforce the point, Callasso sees the humans in the myths as puppets of the gods; for example, the exploits of Theseus in relation to Dionysus and Apollo, who create human destiny through their conflicts and cooperative machinations.

Behind such stories lies a philosophical belief in fate, characterised by the goddess Ate, who led both gods and men astray, and by Ananke who represents the principle of necessity, more familiar to us as the laws of nature. Apollo, despite his patronage of the arts and sciences, eptomises the uncaring psychopath and Dionysus exemplifies a homocidal maniac bent of realising romantic dreams of blood and lust. Calasso’s sympathies are clearly with Zeus, although his mode of creation is through seduction and rape. This Calasso sees as the basis of all things including gods and humans, and hints that Zeus sowed the seeds of monotheism.

The narrator explains the myth of Helen, which began with the rape of Leda by Zeus, and distils out the idea of beaty as a superior power to the brute force used by men and gods. The egg from which Helen hatched contained her twin brother Pollux. A second egg, fathered by Leda’s husband King Tandareus, contained Castor and Clytemnestra who became the wife of Agamemnon and subsequently his murderer.

The binding of such unbelievable fantasies to the quasi-historical story of the Trojan War (caused by the abduction of Helen by Paris)—creates a seamless myth which explains how the reprehensible deeds of Zeus sowed the seeds of the tragic beginnings of Greek society.

If we excise the mythical elements we are left only with the bare bones that can be unearthed by archeology and lose the poetic power that was the real, creative, driving force of ancient Mediterranean societies. Calasso sums this up by saying,

For the Greeks, Helen was the embodiment of that vision, beauty hatched from the egg of necessity. (p.134).

Homer’s epics are even attributed to Helen, who is said to have appeared to him in a dream, commanding him to write them, another example of myth reinforcing myth.
Unlike Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, Calassos’s approach is thematic rather than lexical, references to individual gods or heroes being distribued across the work. Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus appear in several chapters. For example, in Chapter IX the relationship between hierogamy (the marriage between a god and a goddess) and the metaphysics of sacrifice is one such theme.

The first sacrifice, we are told, was due to one Sopatrus, whose offering of cakes to the gods was eaten by an ox. Enraged, Sopatrus slew the ox, buried it and rushed off to Crete. A drought followed and the idea of the expiation of blood guilt by ritual sacrifice was born, which led not only to sacrificing animals to the gods but also to the bloody rites of Dionysus and the consumption of animal and human flesh by his Maenads (female followers of Dionysus).

Not until Chapter XII do we learn of the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, which was important enough to be attended by the Olympian gods. One day, the deadly monster Typhon, son of the earth mother Gaia, reached out to Olympus and chanced to find Zeus’s thunderbolts, without which the great god was powerless, and was soon torn to pieces by the multi-armed monster. The Olympians fled to Egypt, leaving Typhon as supreme ruler. To cut a long story short, Cadmus flattered and charmed the rather stupid monster with his pipe music and allowd the dismembered Zeus to reassemble himself and regain his thunderbolts in time to blast Typhon and restore the Olympian order.

The gratitude of the gods bestowed power and wealth on Cadmus, who founded the city of Thebes. Like most of the Greek myths, destruction and misery eventually followed, although Cadmus and Harmony escaped in a humble ox cart, transformed into intertwined snakes. Making sense of this and other myths is what Robert Calasso does, by seeking out the common ideas which underlay the development of ancient Greek thought up to its final flowering in the works of the great dramatists and Athenian philosophers.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony provides the neophyte with a fascinating introduction to Greek mythology, and for those with more than a passing acquaintance of this particular field, the novel offers a masterly representation of its significance. The thoughts and inventions of the ancient Greeks were the foundation of western culture, albeit overlaid by the equally elaborate mythology of Christianity, and still shine through the dark canyons of our post-modern materialism with a hopeful if ever fading light. Robert Calasso has given us the opportunity to rekindle this light and to rethink our present condition in the equally tragic circumstances of our ancient forbears.


TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.