Every writer who attempts to create anything on a basis of myth either must add, subtract, or alter. Just as in the middle ages, where the myth of Troy was distorted to be believed as a stab-in-the-back defeat, the twentieth century likewise embraced the stories of Greek mythology with the distorted mindset of those who endured the dissolution of the old world. There was an attempt to incorporate the myths with the new modes of communication, and a new and looser sense of morality. The myths invigorated dramatists, psychologists, and philosophers alike. The Classical Tradition was not yet dead.

The Three Interpretations

The Greek legends have always found a new way to teach themselves to an oncoming generation. They never tire in their telling, nor do they exhaust in their examination. The interpretation of the myths fall into three main categories:

  1. They describe historical facts
  2. They are symbolic of philosophical truths
  3. They are reflections of a natural process, eternally occurring.

Let us look at each interpretation above as the twentieth century dawned.

  1. They Describe Historical Facts

This interpretation began with Euhemeros (fl. 300 B.C.) who maintained that all the Greek legends – divine, human, semi-human – were ennobled versions of the exploits of real warriors and chiefs long ago, who were subsequently changed into gods by their adoring tribes. This technique of rationalising myth as reflection of historical fact is thus called euhemerism. The Romans and Christians later understood the importance of deifying their saviours. Christians would ultimately further, portraying the pagan divinities as devils who went to and fro upon the earth before the revelation of Jesus Christ, an interpretation taken up by Milton in Paradise Regained.

2. They are Symbolic of Philosophical Truths

This school began in Germany with G.F. Creuzer’s The Symbolism and Mythology of the Ancient Peoples (1810-12) and later gained a wider audience in France. J.D. Guigniaut translated and expanded the work into a ten-volume opus entitled The Religions of Antiquity, considered principally in their Symbolic and Mythological Forms (1825-51). Later followed Louis Ménard’s Hellenic Polytheism, whose pupil Leconte de Lisle we have already discussed as being the chief Parnassian. It is Ovid Moralised, that medieval interpretation of the work of the Roman poet, re-emerging half a millennium later without its Christian colourings.

Apotheosis of Romulus: Sketch for a Ceiling Decoration, Possibly for Hewell Grange, Worcestershire c.1710 Sir James Thornhill 1675 or 76-1734

3.Important Processes

The prime mover in this field is the German naturalised Englishman Max Muller (1823-1900). For Muller, all the myths could be derived by the process of the earth’s progress around the sun and through the twelve signs of the zodiac – from Hercules’ and his twelve labours to Arthur’s round table and twelve knights. Now seeing all myths as sun-myths can be a tricky enterprise, as seen by C.F. Dupuis’ (1742-1809) earlier claim that Christ was nought but the sun and his twelve disciples the signs of the zodiac. This had been rebuffed as early as 1835 in J.B. Péres’ How Napoleon never existed, who showed how, using the same mythological interpretation, Napoleon and his twelve marshals could be likewise configured.

The thought, nevertheless, would not die, and in Sir J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough the myths were compared to sexual reproduction and agricultural revelations. Psychologists, under the leadership of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), took the myths as linked to unseen psychical attitudes and forces. From Freud come the now famous terms like ‘Oedipus Complex’, ‘Electra complex’ and ‘narcissism’. Freud’s disciple, C.G. Jung, expounded upon these in his trilogy of works Psychology and Religion, Psychology and the Unconscious, and Integration of the Personality as well as through the periodical Eranos.

There is no doubt some truth in this interpretation – the constant re-occurrence of the mystic numbers three, seven, and twelve occur not just in Europe but all over the world. Certain tellings are embedded in our innate humanity. Jung’s ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious do exist. The tales are a projection of basic human desires onto a civilisation. It is from the basic want of a married couple to have a child who is superb in all areas, who is a unique solver of problems, that we obtain the myth of the miraculous birth. Yet it is also important to remember the running theme of tragedy to all the Greek myths. Cinderella may live happily ever after, but Oedipus blinds himself and goes into exile. There is more to these tales than mere wish-fulfilment.

Twisted Re-Tellings

Originating in France through the works of André Gide (1869-1951) with his 1899 works Philoctetes and Promotheus drops his Chains, closely followed by his play King Candaules (1901) the Greek myths were used as a platform to display the various grievances and obsessions which niggled in the mind of twentieth century man. These are works which predominantly presuppose a classically educated audience, such as the use of Vergilian allusions of Platonic daialogues in his Corydon (1924). Gide in this case was following on from Wilde as a neo-Hellenic with a penchant to shock his audience. Traces of the 19th century Anti-Christ movement abound in his work, the latter half of his repertoire containing Oedipus (1931), Theseus (1946) and Considerations on Greek Mythology, left unpublished.

When we consider Gide, it is hard not to see him as an Oscar Wilde for Oscar Wildes. In 1893 Wilde published Salomé, a classical restraint based on the fringes of the Greek world which deals with sinister distortions of sexual passions. From this we get Gide’s aforementioned King Candaules, yet now the sexual tone is darker, more twisted. Gide also sought to build on the immoral temperament of Dorian Gray (1891) in his own Immoralist (1902). Gide continued to explore these themes with works such as Mopsus and If the Seed die not (1924). Amid the sexual degeneracy (Gide himself is an admitted pederast) and his communist and anti-colonial leanings, we see the beginnings of the encroaching issues which would eventually supplant the classical tradition beyond recognition in the arts.

While France was experiencing a slow degeneracy, Germany’s collapse would be more immediate and shocking. The works on classical themes emanating from the country would reflect this. Just prior to the Great War, and into the dying days of the Kaisserreich, a few dramas on mythical themes were produced which are worthy of note: These include Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Electra (1903), a play of foreboding violence which was later set to psychopathic music by Richard Strauss; Franz Werfel’s Trojan Women (1914), also a timely war tragedy. By 1917 Walter Hasenclever was publishing Antigone, in which the cruel tyrant Creon and his marshal bear an obvious resemblance to Wilhelm II and Ludendorff.

Above Left to Right: The Kaiser and his Generals go down with the ship; the New World might on show; Comfort amid the decay – French cafe culture of the twentieth century. 

The intrigues of sex and sexual repression made their way across the pond to America, with the added benefit that the new world was free to observe the disintegration of the old from afar. Between the wars America was a place quickly discovering and enforcing its new-found influence on Europe. It raged wildly in the twenties, slumped in the thirties, and emerged from the Second World War as supreme in the West. Its literary culture also reflects this journey. In 1931 Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning becomes Electra placed the fall of Agamemnon in 19th century New England. It ignores the greater religious and moral problems faced by Aeschylus in the Oresteia. It is a crucial component that was crucially lacking in the new interpretations of the Greek myths. Sex became the primary obsessive in the emerging material world. It was the leading motive of later American and French adaptations of Medea by Robinson Jeffers (1947) and Jean Anouilh (1946) respectively. The two Medeas showed the way forward for such interpretations in the post-war world, though it is worth noting that Jeffers is less terse about his depiction of the deprived Medea than Anouilh, deciding to build on the daemonic power of the sexual impulse, and its close link with the urge to kill.

The Doomed Hero

Other writers and thinkers sought the classical tradition in order to retell the idea of the doomed hero. In history faculties, the twentieth century increasingly saw the erosion of the ‘Great Man’ theory, and in literature the decline of the saviour as traditionally told was also prevalent. One early tragedy between the wars to grasp the decline of the hero was Icarus (1927) by the young Italian poet Lauro de Bosis. Icarus and Daedalus personify the creative mind of man, and its greatest works – knowledge and poetry. De Bosis despaired at the Mussolini regime, and felt artistically oppressed under its thumb. His fitting death occurred flying above Rome issuing anti-fascist leaflets.

In philosophy, the doomed hero captivated the mind of Albert Camus, as alluded to in his collection of essays entitled The Myth of Sisyphus. Who, emerging from the carnage of the second war, wrote extensively on his absurdist take on life. Camus maintained that man is neither tragic nor heroic. His tasks are hopeless, like that of Sisyphus. Life itself is absurd. In this thought Camus, unwittingly, echoes Byron’s call to Prometheus (1816):

Like thee, Man is in part divine,

A troubled stream from a pure source

And Man in portions can foresee

His own funeral destiny;

Its own concentered recompense

Triumphant where it dares defy,

And making Death a Victory

Prometheus was also the inspiration for Carl Spitteler’s work Prometheus and Epimetheus (1880-1). It is an interesting elaboration on the myth of the two brothers, representing Foresight and Hindsight; Vision and Repentance. One is wise, unselfish, eternally progressing, and eternally suffering. The other is simple grasping at wealth without reflection, greedily accepting the perfect woman Pandora although her dowry contained all the troubles of mankind. Spitteler’s mysticism was glimpsing at much which would bother man’s thought in the following century. It fuses Greek myth with Christianity and Gnosticism. Spitteler envisaged a world ruled not directly by God but by an angel, which offers its viceroyalty to Prometheus. The protagonist refuses to preserve the liberty of his own soul, so the offer is extended to Epimetheus, who accepts, ultimately failing in his guard of the world. Nietzsche was also thinking along similar lines when he created Thus spake Zarathustra, its greater success driving Spitteler on to pen further interesting re-interpretations of the fallen hero in Olympian Spring (1906-10) and Prometheus the Sufferer. By 1919 the world had experienced the Great War, a maturing and harrowing effect that made the world greater appreciate Spitteler’s worldview. He was awarded the Nobel Prize that same year.

Prometheus by Theodor Rombouts: A popular choice of myth for interpretation

The new gods’ ascent to Olympus are representative of growth of human spirit from childhood to adulthood or, taken from the individual to civilizational level, the ascent of a race or nation from dust to mud hut to empire, and back again to dust. Spitteler felt that the Greeks were essentially correct in their pessimistic view that life was beautiful but ultimately an implacable struggle. In this sense Spitteler was building on themes expounded by Schopenhauer and Burckhardt. Whereas these latter to are philosophers, one cannot mistake Spitteler for anything but a poet. Like Wordsworth, he is a mountain-poet. In music, he is akin to Bruckner, with his long unhurried pace and simple nobility; to Strauss, with his love of the mountains and of heroic strife; and to Wagner, in his immense conceptions and his primitive sense of doom. In painting, his equivalent would be Arnold Blocklin. He is the epitome of the nineteenth century writer depiction of doomed heroism. This is a doom human pygmies enjoying the trough cannot be expected to understand. Yet it is a doom the late nineteenth & twentieth century artist of the classical school must foresee, and revere. It is a force of nature.  By combining the religious mysticism of Landor with the driving energy of Nietzsche, Spitteler best encapsulates that reverence.

Myth Telling in the wake of Gide

The first half of the twentieth century continued to distort the myths in the manner of the aforementioned Andre Gide. These other artists, captivated by the same sense of witnessing a society encompassing an overwhelming change of function and living, took to Greece to give adequate weight to their musings. The main artists and their works include:

Artist Works
Antigone (1922); Orpheus (1926); The Infernal Machine (1934)
Amphitryon 38 (1929); The Trojan War will not take place (1935); Electra (1937)
Eurydice (1941); Antigone (1942); Medea (1946)
Jean-Paul Sartre The Flies (1943)
Jean Giono Birth of the Odyssey (1938)

These artists, like Stravinsky with his Oedipus Rex and Satie’s Gymnopedies in music, know that Greek myth is a method of storytelling that carries a deep significance for the man of every age. The paintings of Chirico and the sculptures of Maillol assume the same principle. Because of the modern world’s emphasis on material power and possessions, it is extremely difficult to write a contemporary play which will rise, at its noblest moments, into poetry.

In light of this, how do these plays hold up to the classical discipline? Apart from Cocteau’s Infernal Machine, they observe the unity of time and place closely but unobtrusively, and they all maintain the indispensable unity of action. The chorus appears only vestigially, and the words often descend into vulgar and slang. Yet it was the fact that these artists earnestly took on the challenge of interpreting the Greek myths which gave them credence of serious thinkers and creators. In an age of decreasing Christianity, interpretations like that of Jean Giono, whose discovery of Virgil he thought of as a revelation bordering religious conversion, reveal an interesting insight into the mind of the post-cataclysmic artist. The richness of classical literature still allures. Giono sought an opportunity to add a new richness to Odysseus, turning him into a nervous and aging liar, who invents the stories about the Cyclops, and Scylla, and Charybdis, in order to account for his long absence. Though written with fantastic description, Giono’s inversion of the heroic saga of Odysseus, like Joyce before him, remains an artificial manoeuvre. Such a character would never have survived Troy, let alone ever found his way home.

The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’s absurdist philosophy was a cultural cornerstone in the twentieth century’s decline of the heroic

Some placed the myths in modern settings, such as Anouilh’s Eurydice. Placing Orpheus as a café violinist and Eurydice as a travelling actress, Anouilh seeks to show the myth in a broader context. That lovers will always be too inquisitive about the former lives of their partners, that they will always seek more and more information about their lover until that mystery and magic which kindled the relationship is extinguished. This feeling was also expounded in great detail at the time by Proust.

Gide, the grandfather of these twentieth century interpretations, had a few interesting insights as well, the most pertinent being that the Sphinx of Oedipus is the monstrous enigma of life itself, intimidating every youth, yet ready to disappear as soon as the youth answers the riddle with the word MAN. Gide saw this answer as asserting that human nature creates its own destiny, or more malevolently, its own standards.

Giraudoux’s Ampitryon 38 took up a similar task in attempting to reveal unexpected truths about great subjects – the power of woman over man, the relation of husband and wife, the relation of man and the gods. The Classical writer had turned psychologist, and in so doing wanted to seek a truth of relations buried in the tales of antiquity. If they could find a way of inverting the heroic as they did so, this class of writers were all the more pleased. Hence, Gide says Ariadne gave Theseus his thread not only to lead him out of the labyrinth but to attach him to herself. I n Anouilh’s Antigone Creon is not the harsh tyrant as usually depicted, but the administrator of law and order and efficient government. His ideal is in this sense nobler than any individual’s private code of morals. Cocteau saw Oedipus’ fate as the final judgement of his arrogance in solving the riddle of the Sphinx.

The authors, in their want to depict the fall of the hero, again and again wish to focus on sexual depravity, aided by their modern use of language, free from anachronisms and sprinkled with vulgarity. Gide tried deliberately to be banal – for him the heroic is false and the banal is real. Yet what he forgets is that tragedy is an art which must rise above the realities of every day. It is upon the wings of imagination and emotion that they develop their endurance. Yielding to the decline in taste and the contraction of imagination, most modern playwrights will not attempt an equivalent to the beacon-speech in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, or the sleeping Furies in The Eumenides. The French neo-Hellenists such as Gide and Cocteau still needed to use the myth to lure in the audience. Their banality could work on a subject without the precedence of grandeur. Giraudoux, at least, did write exquisite prose, following in the French dramatic tradition of raisonnement and Cocteau, as well, can reach great heights of eloquence. Even as our literary tradition lurched toward the gaudy and the decrepit, there was eloquence and etchings of the great tradition upon which these writers built their pyres.

The Greeks produced profound art on the human condition – love and war; sin and tyranny; courage and fate. They are about man’s relation to the divine. In the growing atheism of the twentieth century, writers sought to take the myths and remove that divinity. Yet most men, however vulgar, still seek to overcome it. Banality may be their daily reality, but tomorrow could yet deliver elevation. The ancients help us gain understanding on this struggle through the longstanding study of their tales, peeled over and dissected by wise men of every century. The myths are permanent, the meddling will prove to be temporary.