Monday, October 12, 2009

Dragon teeth

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover's coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.

How did it all begin? That's the question that Roberto Calasso asks again and again at the beginning of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, his retelling of Greek myths. The book begins with Zeus, disguised as a white bull, carrying off Europa -- a familiar enough story, at least to the Greeks, who often started their stories with the abduction of a beautiful girl by a randy god. The book ends with the marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, the Phoenician prince and the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, at which all the gods attend. And then depart. To wherever it is gods go when they are no longer necessary. Cadmus, the Phoenician, had given humans a gift. A gift that meant more than a bevy of gods. The alphabet.

With which the Greeks created western civilization.

Sixteen squiggles. Later expanded to twenty-four. Vowels and consonants. Squiggles that gave their possessors the power to create literature, law, history, science. No wonder the gods absconded. Divine immortality was no longer necessary to insure that human achievements were not forgotten. The twenty-four squiggles conferred their own kind of immortality.

On a beach in Sidon a bull was aping a lover's coo. It was Zeus. He shuddered, the way he did when a gadfly got him. But this time it was a sweet shuddering. Eros was lifting a girl onto his back: Europa.