The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a multifaceted blend of myth, history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, and literary criticism by an illustrious Italian publisher, author, and classical scholar. Roberto Calasso’s primary models and sources are the Iliad and the Odyssey, epic poems traditionally attributed to the blind poet Homer, who lived in the eighth century B.C. Some scholars have suggested, however, that there was no single “Homer” who created these poems, that the Homeric epics are the creation of a succession of oral poets who transformed the tales and handed them down from generation to generation. Calasso is another one of these Homeric poets, taking the traditional tales of the Greeks and adapting them to a new audience. He is a modern Greek “rhapsode,” a stitcher of songs and blender of traditions.

Calasso celebrates the variant versions of these myths. He recognizes that the real meaning of myth lies not in the single story line but in its multiplicity, its variation. Hence he sings not only the more familiar songs of Homer but also other ancient tunes, including those of the Athenian tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides, the lyric poet Sappho, and the Hellenistic epic poet Apollonius of Rhodes. He even weaves into his text references to esoteric Orphic poems and lesser-known but important writers of late antiquity such as Lucian and Nonnus. Thus Calasso tells how Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, either commits suicide or dies in childbirth. Or she is killed by Artemis’ arrows at the order of Dionysus, or, as the companion of Dionysus, is turned to stone at the glance of Medusa’s head in the hands of Perseus. Or she marries Dionysus and becomes divine and a constellation. For Calasso these alternatives are not contradictory but different sides of the same mythic prism, a dizzying illustration of the mythological meld.

Some of the varied mythic images Calasso captures are drawn from visual, not written sources. With careful eye and scholarship Calasso creates luscious word pictures of ancient artwork, including painted pottery and architectural sculpture. He brings to life the story of Jason and Medea via the figures depicted on the Canosa wine bowl in Munich with its rare representation of Oistrus, the human gadfly by which the Greeks personified an overweening craving toward ruin. Similarly, Calasso stirs up the drama preceding Pelops’ memorable chariot race and the psychology of its participants by describing the pedimental sculptures from the temple of Zeus, now in the Olympia Museum in Greece.

Calasso even re-creates in words the image of what has been lost, such as Pheidias’ majestic statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Calasso’s powerful description of this statue recollects the intense religious encounter that the ancient worshiper would have experienced in the presence of the god’s image.

Calasso is more than a good storyteller. As he retells these ancient myths, he brings to life their religious meaning and explains how the mysteries commemorated by the Greeks in myth and in ritual show humans imitating gods imitating humans. He argues that the core of these mysteries centers not on humanity’s search for immortality but on the death of a god. So the myth of the dying Dionysus intersects with the Christian belief in the dying Christ. At the same time Calasso affirms that these ancient myths are based not upon belief but upon enchantment, the human sense of overwhelming awe before the power of deity.

In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony religious treatise also merges with traditional myth commentary. The scholar Calasso cites many ancient commentators such as Hyginus, Athenaeus, the church fathers, and various scholia or comments written in the margins of medieval manuscripts. He also acknowledges more modern commentators, including Milman Parry, the twentieth century scholar of Homeric verse, and Pierre Chantraine, the...

(The entire section is 1638 words.)