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Over the last year, I decided that I would finally start to read
the Greek Myths. I’d known plenty of Irish ones, and had learnt other
myths from other places over the years, too, but I’d never known where
to begin with the Greek myths. I couldn’t tell Prometheus from
Persephone. In order to get the basic overview, I started off in what
I think is the best place — Marcia Williams’ cartoons for children. I
then moved on to Stephen Fry’s very funny books before reading some
translations from the Greek.
I got lost in the names, of course, but certain stories stayed with
me, particularly that of Persephone. She was abducted by the god of
the underground — Hades — and taken there. So distraught was
Persephone’s mother, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest,
at the disappearance of her daughter, that the crops all failed.
Demeter searched and searched. But to no avail.
Such was Demeter’s grief that Zeus, the All-father, intervened,
sending the messenger god down to the underworld to bring Persephone
back. But even here, Hades was not to be outdone. He tricked
Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds without her knowing that
if she ate the fruit of the underworld, she’d be bound to always
And so the cycles of the world were explained: every year
Persephone returns to the underworld and the crops go into recession…
and when she emerges after months, such is her mother Demeter’s joy
that the world erupts into springtime, growth, life.
I think because this winter has felt like a long lockdown due to
Covid restrictions, I’ve been searching for signs of Persephone for
months now. And when a heather plant I keep in the back patio burst
into purple and pink and white blossom one weekend, I cried at the
sign of springtime. Old myths find new ways to bring meaning to life.
They’re like a mirror in which we can see ourselves as we see the
characters of human violence, frailty, cunning, and relief.
This week on On Being, Krista
interviews Bryan Doerries, the director and principal writer of
Theater of War. Theater of War is a public health project bringing new
translations of old myths — Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, the Book of
Job and more — to fresh audiences. At first in hospitals, prisons,
military bases, and now to a stunning array of humanity by way of
technology, he brings together actors and audiences to soak in the
brilliance of these ancient stories and then reflect on profoundly
engaging questions about the story they’ve just witnessed: What
touched you? What spoke to you across time?
When Krista asks him to talk about that, he doesn’t answer the
question, rather he tells a story, the story of Oedipus and his
return. Fluently, with detail and clarity, support and flourish, Bryan
Doerries tells the story of that character from Greek myth so beloved
of psychoanalysis, and then, at the end of his telling, asks Krista
those questions. She finds echoes of the punitive impulse in humanity,
and the ways that suffering piles on suffering, and the pervasive
power of deception in public communication. It’s an extraordinary
exchange, and one that demonstrates rather than
describes the richness of Bryan Doerries’ work.
The whole project started for him as a recognition that, when he
read those ancient stories, he was relieved to know he wasn’t the only
one to feel the way he felt. Stories — even and especially stories of
tragedy — can confirm the experience of people who are used to their
stories being denied. Once, after the performance of Sophocles’ tragic
play about Ajax, a young American soldier offered that the play was
written to boost morale, because morale can be boosted by
acknowledging the truth, even when it’s brutal. This episode is a
wonder, a connection in story across culture, time and language,
offering something like healing to those of us desperate to know we
are not alone in our experiences.
Looking to myths doesn’t tell us the future; nobody would propose
that. Much harm has been done in looking to myths — or texts from
religions — as stable predictors of what is to come. However, myths
can help us look to the present: our place in it, and perhaps
even our agency to shape it. The myths lay bare some of the driving
complexities of the human condition. And stepping aside from the
day-to-day reality into the mythologies of the world can help us see
more clearly, and by seeing clearly, perhaps know what it means to act
with courage, creativity and imagination.
Friends, in all our seeings, we wish you clarity. And we join you
in the practice of looking and listening.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry
P.S. – Following on the theme of our show this week, I’d like to
recommend the Tiny Desk Concert excerpts from Anaïs Mitchell’s
magnificent musical Hadestown.
This show features characters from Greek mythology singing about
decisions, regret, love and the underworld of their lives.
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista
are not alone across time.'"
An old alchemy for our young century. A
new global amphitheater for the whole of humanity — dignified,
cathartic, and joyful.
Love: The Courage to Imagine
Join the On Being Project at this virtual conference, convened by
Middle Collegiate Church, from April 15 - 18. Krista will be
interviewed by Rev. Jacqui Lewis on Saturday, April 17th from 3:45 -
4:30 pm EST. And Ben Katt and Lillie Benowitz, of our Religious Life
and Social Healing team, will guide a reflective experience on social
healing, then host a learning space on grief and gratitude on
Thursday, April 15th starting at 3:30 pm EST.
You can learn more and register here.