Previously, I selected some of my favourite poems about classical mythology. But I also believe that, as a researcher and teacher of English literature, I should try my hand at writing about it, too, if only so I might better understand what goes into the creative process.
The following poem, ‘Euhemerism’, is about the origins of various well-known myths. I gloss them in the note that follows the poem. The poem is modelled on the sonnet form, but is a combination of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (it begins by rhyming abab) and the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet (the second quatrain uses enclosed rhyme, and the last six lines form a sestet which ‘turn’ away from the octave and provide a sort of commentary on them).
It is, like many of my poems, an experiment – trying to push the language and frames of reference of poetry into new territory, even if it doesn’t entirely succeed. Still, I would prefer to write a happy and noble failure than a cheap success. You can read some other noble failures on my poetry blog, Calenture.
By Oliver Tearle
A Saxon sword was pulled from a stone mould,
and so a myth was born. The Golden Fleece
arose from Bronze Age panning; speaking of gold,
the Hesperides were oranges, but these
were unknown to the authors. The ten plagues
began as rains eroding clay that spread
into the Nile, and made the river red.
The Trojan Horse was siege engine, not equus.
We tell ourselves not truth but what we crave
to hear at a given moment, till in time
the legend’s printed on our frontal cortex.
It is not fact but story that we weave,
longing to knock the infinitely complex
into some shape our minds can recognise.
Note: A poem based on some of the well-known myths, both classical Greek and Arthurian. ‘Euhemerism’ is the name given to the study of classical myths which sees those myths as having their origins in real-life practices or events; it’s named after Euhemerus, one of the most famous (though not the first) classical writer to attempt to find rational explanations for the various stories from Greek mythology.
I can’t remember who first proposed the theory that the ‘sword from the stone’ episode from Arthurian legend grew out of Saxon sword-casting methods, but it has always struck me as a likely origin-story. Tim Severin’s Jason Voyage explores the idea that the Golden Fleece sought by the Argonauts similarly has a euhemeristic explanation, and there is certainly evidence of ancient miners along the Black Sea using sheepskin to filter gold from nearby mountain streams. There is a theory that the Golden Apples of the Hesperides were not apples at all but oranges, which were unknown to Europe and the Mediterranean until the Middle Ages.
The ten plagues of Egypt have attracted euhemeristic commentary, too. Kristin Swenson, in her A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, explains the hypothesis that a great rain might have eroded clay into the Nile, causing it to appear red like blood and to choke the fish; this clay would have caused the frogs, infected with anthrax, to migrate into people’s homes, causing lice and flies; these insect infestations would, in turn, cause the deaths of cattle and human boils. All of this culminates in high infant mortality rates: the so-called slaying of the first-born sons of the houses of Egypt.
I am fairly convinced that the Trojan Horse was not a wooden horse at all, but (if the myths were inspired by some real military practice) probably a siege engine or battering ram (whose shape vaguely resembled a horse). What was later attributed to Odysseus’ cunning was probably nothing but brute military force.