Tag Archives: The Iliad

A Sense Of Story

In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.

The Ascension by Benjamin West, 1801

Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.

Gods of Olympus, 1534-35 Giulion Romano
Gods of Olympus (1534-1535) by Giulio Romano

I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.

Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens

We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
athena inspires odysseus for vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

Ancient To Modern: Swift Afoot

As I get ideas, I will contribute posts to this new category that occurred to me recently. I thought it would be fun to examine images based on ancient mythology and relate them to multiple media today. This will NOT be a scholarly analysis. Instead, I will deal with surface impressions and similarities: eye candy and an intellectual break. At least that’s the plan. Since time marches swiftly on, let’s start with Hermes.

Souls on the Banks of Acheron by Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl
Souls on the Banks of Acheron by Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl

He is the Greek messenger of the gods, and he likes the fellowship of human beings. He seems to enjoy interacting with them, as he does in The Iliad by Homer  He also intervenes for Odysseus on behalf of Zeus in The Odyssey, also written by Homer.  The above painting is an interesting composition in which he is relatively easy to identify. Below, you can see a photograph of a Roman marble (sculptor unknown) from the Louvre which shows him in an interesting pose.

Hermes Fastening his Sandal
Hermes Fastening his Sandal

Of course, the Romans actually named him Mercury.

Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens
Mercury and a Sleeping Herdsman by Peter Paul Rubens

Based on the original, Golden Age appearance of this next character, it is obvious that he was inspired by traditional depictions of Mercury. As in the case of many comic book heroes, a “scientific” rather than a mythological explanation is given for how he obtained his powers. This combination of science fiction and mythology is one of the features that make good comics so much fun to read. Back to the immediate subject at hand, The Flash is a fixture from my childhood, only not in this particular form.



 It is the Silver Age Flash with whom I grew up. By then he was wearing a more streamlined and form-fitting speed suit which was strangely prescient.


For a relatively brief time, life imitated art as elite sprinters in track and field wore body suits made of Lycra.


The Flash has been updated a little in more recent portrayals. You can see in this and other drawings that he is more mesomorphic and that the artists have played around a little with the uniform. As with most DC Comics updates, this character is also angrier. Of course, there have been a number of successors to the original character in the extended story arc.
I’m not making any major revelation by mentioning that The Flash has his own television show on the CW network.



My brother, Doug Jones, did a guest appearance as the villainous Deathbolt on one episode. He also played the same role in Arrow, also on the CW.



I really like this homage by Alex Ross to the Golden Age appearance of The Flash.


But I like pretty much anything by Alex Ross. He really trips my imagination. At any rate I saved this image for last. More next week.

p. s. I almost forgot. Not to be outdone, Marvel Comics also has a superhero with similar attributes. Quicksilver was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee for the X-Men series.

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics