Rewriting the mythology of Western civilisation
Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour and anxiety to acquire.
—Theodore Alois Buckley’s introduction to Alexander Pope’s translation
of Homer’s Iliad
It is a truth universally acknowledged that scholarly appreciation of Western literature requires a familiarity with the works of the Judeo-Christian tradition and classical mythology. I understood this to be valid, so when I attended university as a mature-age student in the 1990s I did a major in myth and ancient literature in translation along with an English major. Having been raised as a Catholic I thought I had the Judeo-Christian part covered. It turned out not to be so simple.
I wrote my master’s thesis on a feminist rewriting of Greek mythology. I was already a feminist and interested in how a rewriting showed other aspects of these stories. What I found was that inserting an agenda didn’t necessarily make for satisfying storytelling.
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In 2017 my daughter studied The Odyssey and rewritings of The Odyssey in her preliminary extension English class. I re-engaged with my academic interest to deliver some presentations to her class and found there is a lot happening in this field that is unsettling and problematic. That was a big year for classics. Five novels rewriting Greek myth were published, based on the stories of Oedipus, The Oresteia, The Odyssey, Antigone and The Argonautica. The first translation of The Odyssey into English by a woman was published, as was Stephen Fry’s retelling of Greek myths. Writers were working on retellings of The Iliad and other works.
The works of the ancient classical Greco-Roman world have long been regarded as the basis for Western civilisation, Western literature and art. Using ancient texts as the basis for Western civilisation has embedded power structures that privilege some and oppress others. Goethe speculated that the course of human history would have been better if our ancient text had been the works of Homer rather than the Bible.
I doubt it, since the power structures that have evolved from each are the same. According to the received idea of Western civilisation, we have both. Early Christianity saw St Jerome and St Augustine struggle with reconciling their faith with their love of classics, but somehow this reconciliation became the norm. We tried operating under the power of the church without the influence of classics and arrived in the Dark Ages. The Renaissance, with its appreciation of the classics, brought us back to curiosity, creativity, innovation and development. We know that in moving from the works of Homer to the Bible we shifted from polytheism to monotheism, from fluid texts to a sacred text, and from moral relativism to moral absolutism.
the town and killed the men. We took their wives and shared their riches equally among us.
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX, 41–3 (trans. Emily Wilson)
We used to study history as a grand narrative leading to a celebration of Western civilisation. We now study history in a more global way, acknowledging that geographical divisions are not so clear, that hierarchies of power were applied, that interconnections are important and that, with limited evidence, our idea of any historical period is simplified and constructed. We now look at social history. We consider the validity of evidence. There really was no Golden Age that was good for everyone.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, ‘Most sociopolitical hierarchies lack a logical or biological basis—they are nothing but the perpetuation of chance events supported by myths.’ Although there is some archaeological evidence that myths are based upon historical events (the fall of Troy, the golden fleece, warrior women), these stories are not to be read as historical, but as stories to help us make sense of our lives, of our relationship with the gods, and to explain the unexplainable. Without knowledge of physics, germs, the planets, or any theories of psychology, storytelling helped us feel there was some explanation for natural forces and human behaviour.
The gods may be capricious and their will unknowable, but at least people could try to have some influence on what happened to them. The Greek gods were said to have started with Hesiod and Homer. Hesiod was a farmer who claimed Dionysus told him to write. Homer was a blind oral poet, whose works were written down. Attributed to him are hymns to pagan gods, The Iliad, The Odyssey and a comedy that did not survive. Homer’s works glorify the heroes of war and their immortality in storytelling and song. Oral stories were also shared among neighbouring populations—Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Etruscans, Phoenicians. There are no autograph copies of any classical work; every surviving text has been copied, translated and constructed.
These stories were always fluid and there was never one sacred version. Even in antiquity, Greek mythology was explained and rationalised by the author known as Palaephatus in the fourth century BCE. In On Incredible Tales he explains how some stories were based on misinterpreted events, or based on metaphors that were then literalised. For example, Pandora was not made of clay but was a woman who used clay as make-up. Centaurs were the first men to ride horses, not half-man and half-horse. The mythical stories were rewritten in ancient times. Some only survived due to Islamic cultures keeping them alive.
Perhaps only 10 per cent of ancient classical literature has survived; it is impossible to know. Works written onto papyrus rather than parchment disintegrated. The rest were lost due to assorted reasons: they were repurposed—destroyed by fire when the Library of Alexandria was burnt—texts such as comedies, autobiographies, erotica and writing by women, slaves or minorities were simply not copied; or, as in the case of Sappho, texts were deliberately destroyed due to judgement about the content.
Who owns these stories? The surviving works were claimed by white men for their own purposes. Joan Didion writes in The White Album, ‘A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.’ So with classical literature. White men claimed that these stories are universal and speak to what it is to be human. If that were true, there would be stories about childbirth (rather than Zeus, a serial rapist, incubating children in his thigh and his head, and Leda laying eggs), about menopause (I’m still looking), and they would all pass the Bechdel test: that two named female characters talk about something other than a man (they don’t). We have been taught that male is the norm and the default. It is not.
Yes, the ancient Greeks informed our thinking about philosophy, literature, mathematics, natural sciences, theatre, art and government. We refer to fifth-century BCE Greece as the Golden Age. Literary devices, scenes, memes and tropes can be traced from ancient classical texts through the Bible and beyond, but let’s be clear-eyed about who ancient Greeks and Romans were. Theirs were slave-based societies. Women had no power. The first book of The Odyssey includes Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, to return upstairs to her private quarters because speaking is the business of men. The Iliad opens with the anger of Achilles because Agamemnon has taken his slave girl. In ancient Rome the best-regarded woman was one who never spoke in the company of men. Men having sex with pubescent boys was unremarkable. Perhaps 10 per cent of the population was literate.
My name is Noman.
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX, 366 (trans. Emily Wilson)
Once these stories were claimed as their own by white men, white men from various backgrounds, multi-white men (even though the writers were olive-skinned), they became encoded in power systems. Under patriarchy and colonisation the people without power knew that being on board with ancient literature was a code to accessing power on multi-white male terms. To be educated required those outside the power group (not male, not rich, not white, not straight) to obtain this education, a classical education, in order to access power—to share cultural references and deserve a seat at the table. This is how the world came to operate. Women who knew ancient Greek and Latin sought to be recognised as serious scholars. The colonised who adopted these stories as their own must be on the side of the powerful. The colonised took on the culture of the colonisers and were expected to be grateful, or to be exterminated. We could examine this dynamic in terms of our current idea of cultural appropriation and why taking on the culture of the powerful is expected, yet taking on the culture of the oppressed was regarded as ‘going native’ but now is seen as disrespectful. How do we navigate cultural exchange between unequal powers?
Importantly, as noted by Andrea O’Reilly, professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at York University, these stories are described as seminal texts rather than ovarian texts. We learn that multi-white male writing is good writing. That multi-white male leadership is good leadership. In retrospect we can call this social engineering. It becomes embedded in our culture. Ancient cultures from all over the world have been excluded from this story because they were unknown to multi-white men. We could have as the basis for our culture many other influences: Pacific Islander dancing; Aboriginal dreamtime; the works of Confucius; Arabic music; Japanese theatre; a matriarchal tribe; depending on the accidents of history and the weapons of aggressors. We will never know the consequences of the paths not travelled and the potential influence of artefacts lost. Instead we have been taught that multi-white male subjectivity is objectivity. It isn’t. While leaving out the contentious idea of what is ‘Western civilisation’, to claim these texts as the basis for our values today is insulting to everyone not represented, who has values based on anything that is not recognised by multi-white men. We may well ask who owns values.
But now, the winds have seized him, and he is nameless and unknown.
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book I, 241–2 (trans. Emily Wilson)
Women have been translating and rewriting these stories to insert what has been silenced, challenging the embedded power structures. Each retelling or rewriting or new story, of the stories and the idea of Western civilisation, either challenges or champions the traditional power structures. It is notable that the first translation of The Odyssey by a woman into English was published only in November 2017. The gendered slurs are absent. The maids are not maids but slaves. It matters.
Thinking about how the classics have been used in power systems occurs within the field of classical reception studies. In Britain this work has been led by Edith Hall, who has written about class, gender and ethnicity in ancient sources. The online journal Eidolon, edited by Donna Zuckerberg in the United States, seeks to champion the study of classics, but reads them for social justice and equality in a feminist, inclusive and progressive way. While classics, specifically Tacitus’s description of Germanic people as noble savages admired for their pure blood, are being claimed as a source of entitlement for white supremacists, as they were for the Nazis, a counter argument must be made. We know that histories written in ancient Greece and Rome were based on limited information, containing imaginative writing to fill in the gaps, and, like all texts, were written in specific contexts for particular purposes and audiences.
The most visible faces of classics at the moment are women’s. Yet these women are being disparaged. In the review of three novels rewriting Greek myth published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2017, a male reviewer described Natalie Haynes’ Afterword in her novel as ‘chatty’. He derides her novel as flat-toned, as is the fashion, he says, for young writers, and the dialogue too commonplace. His review favoured the two male writers. One he describes as brilliant, giving substance, probability and psychological reality to these creatures of myth. The other male’s novel is described as an impressive tour de force. The reviewer praises the sparse use of dialogue and lack of finite verbs. When he says the novel becomes more conventional, he accepts this without criticism. The reviewer is blind to one of the male writers having thanked Haynes for helping him. Haynes is a classicist and broadcaster who champions the study of classics.
Another classicist, Mary Beard, also received media attention in 2017. She published a short book of two lectures, entitled Women and Power. Worryingly, an endorsement on the book jacket from the Financial Times reads: ‘An irrepressible enthusiast with a refreshing disregard for convention’. Mary Beard is a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. In terms of scholarship, one can’t go any higher. She is not an ‘enthusiast’. I also wonder what is meant by her disregard for convention. That she doesn’t dye her hair? That she is an older woman with a public presence? Or that she argues for women’s rights? Penelope is still being told to go to her room.
These power systems from ancient texts and the received idea of Western civilisation aren’t working out well for lots of people. Universities in Britain, the United States and South Africa are grappling with accusations of teaching white supremacy and denying history. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign challenges the legacy of exploitation of ‘the colonies’. Right-wing nationalism is rising in Europe and the United States. Southern states of the United States are dealing with confederate memorials. And, across the world, we can still measure various forms of gender inequality.
How prone to doubt, how cautious are the wise!
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book VIII, 375 (trans. Alexander Pope)
Yet the arguments are still being made that our society, in Australia, a multicultural society, founded on Aboriginal land, has values based upon Western civilisation. According to John Howard, quoted in the Financial Review: ‘Western civilisation has got to be taught as the contribution of Greek and Roman heritage, the Judeo-Christian ethic, the Enlightenment and the British iteration of parliamentary democracy and civil and common law. And of course the Protestant revolution—because of the role it gave to the individual.’
John Howard is chair of the board of directors for the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. The board oversees the $3 billion endowment by Paul Ramsay, who ran Ramsay Health Care and owned a network of television stations. The endowment is to fund undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships to be delivered by two NSW/ACT universities. The aim is for Australians to ‘learn to value their own civilisational heritage’. Ramsay was Catholic and friends with Tony Abbott, who is on the board.
The CEO of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is Simon Haines. He told Catholic Outlook that when he was teaching poetry in China there was a ‘thirst for knowledge of the West’. ‘In many cases, what they would have studied would be quite a limited curriculum,’ he said, because of Marxism. Catholic Outlook reported:
The Ramsay Scholarships will support the growing interest in the West’s intellectual, spiritual and artistic heritage.
The Ramsay Centre’s educational program will have a broad curriculum in the ‘best which has been thought and said in the world’.
‘We’re hoping for this to be non-ideological; putting the focus on the Great Books.’
Haines told Campion College graduates that after studying the liberal arts, the thread from ‘romantic poetry to merchant banking makes more sense’. Great books programs typically include Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, sacred scripture, St Augustine, Chaucer, Machiavelli, St Thomas More, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen and modern writers.
Note there is no definition of ‘the best’ nor of ‘great books’, no acknowledgement that anything worthwhile has been said outside Haines’ idea of Western civilisation and no understanding that his proposed program is already ideologically based and a limited curriculum, as every curriculum must be. There is no acknowledgement that the idea of ‘the best which has been said or thought in the world‘ is a quote from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book Culture and Anarchy, in which Arnold argues for the study and pursuit of perfection as an antidote to anarchy. There is no acknowledgement that people from the East may be interested in the West due to their unequal positions in systems of power. Note all the books are by multi-white men except Austen, who wrote mildly comical novels satirising her society, in which women grapple with love and financial security and somehow it ends happily ever after. Austen, who is safe.
The link to merchant banking is telling. Haines was interviewed by Geraldine Doogue on ABC radio. She asked what would happen if the course turned out to be more about critiquing than celebrating Western civilisation. He said the funding would be withdrawn. She asked about the impact of imperialism and colonisation, which didn’t work out well for many people. He said the corrective in thinking about this had swung too far with an equal-rights agenda and identity politics—we need to focus on the big picture. When Doogue asked if the course would be taught through the male gaze, he groaned.
In the December 2017 issue of Quadrant, Haines acknowledged the criticism of the proposed course, saying his detractors either argue that Western civilisation doesn’t exist or that it shouldn’t. He argues that the institutions of Western civilisation have permitted this freedom of speech. He writes, ‘Why should a few current, crude political obsessions deny school leavers, or indeed older students, access to this vast centuries-long conversation about the meaning of life—of their own lives?’ Never mind about the systemic oppression of women, colonised peoples and anyone else who isn’t male and white. If freedom of speech has eventually permitted the vote for women and freedom from slavery, how long does he expect us to be grateful?
In May 2017 the Sydney Morning Herald published Tony Abbott’s piece entitled ‘The West’s high culture is the best antidote to discrimination’. Abbott writes about his disappointment in people criticising Australia and its values, particularly Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day tweet —‘Lest we forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)’—and claims there is a ‘cultural cowardice at the heart of our institutions’. His recommendation is pride in our Western civilisation. He laments trigger warnings and political correctness. In talking about Australians he says: ‘Believers or not, they know that Gospel values are the best way to live. They appreciate that freedom of speech might not create a single job; because it’s done so much more than that. It’s created a civilisation: the only one yet in human history that’s provided every citizen with the necessities of life.’ Then he glorifies the little people who struggle in substandard conditions providing goods and services. He defends the church: ‘We respect the Christian church even though its adherents are all-too-human, because it turns our minds and hearts and souls to the higher things.’ Never mind the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Never mind all the Australians whose material needs are not being met. Abbott was a Rhodes scholar, yet it is difficult to imagine him spending his evenings at the opera or reading Virgil in Latin.
Also on the board are Joe de Bruyn, a socially conservative Catholic trade union official and member of the ALP executive; Peter Evans, a member of Sydney Anglicans and an accountant; Julian Leeser, a Catholic federal Liberal MP; Michael Siddle, Michael Easson, Tony Clark and just one woman, Elizabeth Stone. According to the Guardian, Howard and Kim Beazley (who was a member of the board before being appointed as governor of Western Australia) are united in calling identity politics a ‘cancer’, and in their concern for the fading confidence in democracy. Never mind that there may be other reasons for that fading confidence. For a centre for education, there is a paucity of educators and an abundance of conservative Christians.
I’ve been following the arguments made by John Howard, Tony Abbott, Kevin Donnelly, Christopher Pyne and Barry Spurr regarding education for some years. My summary is that they are afraid of postmodernism, critical theory, multimodal texts, identity politics, multiculturalism, feminism and cultural relativism. In 2010 John Howard described senior school English courses as embracing ‘gobbledygook’. Clearly, he dismisses ideas he doesn’t understand.
The defenders of the values of Western civilisation remind me of Achilles having a tantrum over Agamemnon taking his slave girl. How could studying these ancient texts, translated and constructed, advise us on addressing today’s global problems? Problems such as political instability, war, sex slavery, child marriage, poverty, climate change, food and water security, obesity, cancer, diabetes, depression, anxiety, unemployment, corruption? Do not look to them for role models on how to ‘be a man’ or how to conduct respectful relationships with women.
With such an emphasis on the written word, I find it ironic that two famous figures from ancient texts, Socrates and Jesus, wrote nothing themselves. Jesus only wrote with a stick in the sand, and we don’t know what he wrote. His stories, according to the writers of the Gospels many years later, were parables, full of metaphors. Socrates, as represented by Plato, said that writing is ‘inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind’. It seems they were comfortable with oral storytelling and discussion. Sometimes remembering is a burden and a trap. So, while I champion any investment in the liberal arts and humanities, the idea of a Ramsey Centre for Western Civilisation fills me with dread. Either the men who champion this program do not understand what they doing, or they do. Both possibilities are equally frightening.
The idea of Western civilisation is itself contested. Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, writes convincingly about this in his essay ‘There is no such thing as western civilisation’. He tracks the evolution of the idea. Culturally, we have little in common with our forebears. Globalisation cannot be undone. We choose our values rather than inherit them. His arguments should be seriously considered.
The argument that these works provide the values upon which Western civilisation is based, and that these values are worth protecting, and provide a basis for policymaking in 2019, should also be contested. With none of these terms defined by the proponents of this argument, I read this as code to include some and exclude others on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and faith. They are fond, too, of using the term Judeo-Christian, as if all Christianities are the same, and Christianity has subsumed Judaism. The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ does a disservice to Jews and to Christians. (The term ‘Greco-Roman’ would have been objectionable to ancient Greeks and Romans too. The Greeks identified themselves by city-state, and then as Hellenes. Part of their success was due to being open to learning from their neighbours.) It is used as code to include Christians and exclude others. Its use is an example of how we tell stories to ourselves within structures of inclusion and exclusion. I’m curious to know how Judeo-Christian values will be taught while covering the history of the systematic exclusions of the Jewish people and the Holocaust.
Studying Western civilisation at universities may result in the opposite outcome Haines, Howard and Abbott might expect. Applying critical thinking, that is, asking questions, looking for evidence to support claims, acknowledging absences and reviewing what we think we know, could result in debunking the received idea of Western civilisation, and challenging all the power structures the idea supports. Otherwise, we apply lazy thinking, using uncontested claims to support an ideology that maintains traditional, unfair power structures. If the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation assumes the scholarships will provide a basis for Australians to respect their received ideas as the values of our civilisational heritage, they may need to think again. Frankly, I don’t see how any university that delivers this program could do so while being consistent with its declared values. I don’t see how any university could deliver this program while being consistent with its declared graduate attributes. I don’t see how any university could deliver this program without risking its reputation.
It is annoying,
Repeating tales that have been told before.
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book XII, 453–4 (trans. Emily Wilson)
So what do we do with classics? Why do people rewrite these stories, and what purpose does a rewriting serve? In rewriting the myths a writer aims either to protect or to challenge the embedded systems of power that influence us today. Some successful rewritings set the stories in other times and places. The less successful write from the point of view of a character in the ancient context using a sanctimonious tone. Setting a story in an ancient context convincingly is a difficult undertaking. Arguably the most successful retellings are stage productions of the plays, which can show various sides of a story without being heavy-handed and can translate the stories to any time and place. Perhaps a rewriting might start with all the goddesses putting Zeus on trial for being a serial rapist, and making him stop, so that no human could ever think that his behaviour is acceptable. Such a scene does not exist in the surviving ancient literature. It is possible that had such a scene existed, the course of human history would have been different.
Perhaps these stories were never ours to begin with. What if the stories women told in kitchens and while laundering and taking care of children became the basis of our serious literature? What of the stories told by slaves among themselves? What if ancient people believed their thoughts were messages from gods? What if, after the Trojan War, the women swore ‘Never again’? What if Hypsipyle always intended for Jason and his fellow travellers to impregnate the women and leave? What if the priestesses of Delphi were happy to live free from the attentions of men? What if Ovid was exiled for the offence of encouraging women to wear make-up to attract a man? What if evidence of all these scenes was buried in the Egyptian desert? What if the Library of Alexandria had survived? What if we gave equal value to other types of meaning-making such as art, dance, music? We could well ask who owns gestures, or sounds or colours or shapes or rhythms. What if we celebrated the similarities and differences in stories all over the world? As Marguerite Johnson, professor of classics at the University of Newcastle, says about fairytales, myths are good to think with.
We should keep studying classical texts, and be curious about the understandings of ancient peoples; there is still much to learn. Diversity of scholarship means new questions are being explored. Ancient memory devices became our literary devices, which are still serving us well. The principles of rhetoric are ones we could usefully resurrect. But do not look to these texts for advice on what to eat (Homer: meat and wine, meat and wine) or how to treat women, or slaves, or the colonised, or gay marriage. These texts were never set in stone. The stories are flexible enough to accommodate multiple readings, multiple rewritings and new works, entering into a conversation about power structures. We need to stop saying that classical literature and the Bible are the basis for the Western literary canon. They used to be. They aren’t any more. They shouldn’t be. We need to stop saying that these texts provide the basis for our Australian values. They do not.
We still want to believe that people get what they deserve, if only in the afterlife, that cheats never prosper, despite evidence to the contrary, and that missing children have been so favoured by the gods that they have been taken to Mount Olympus. We need comfort when bad things happen to good people. We still read stories to critique and reflect on ourselves and our societies, and contemplate what it is to be human. We still use stories as meaning-making devices. We are still interested in portents and prophesy and whether the gods or nature care for us. But we need these stories to be available to all and to offer something that contributes to what it is to be human, not just to embed racial or gendered thinking. We want to emphasise similarities rather than differences and to include rather than divide. We need to be open. Loose-limbed. We need to listen.
In 2017 I had much cause to think of the Dunning–Kruger effect, the psychological theory that bears out Confucius’s statement that ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’ and Socrates’ claim, according to Plato, that he is wise in that he knows nothing. I wish I could have talked to Paul Ramsay to explain why the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is a bad idea and that his $3 billion could be better spent. That waste of money and lost opportunity makes me very sad. There is nothing bittersweet about it.
I would explain that cultural stories work like personal stories. When we tell a story for the first time we collate the information, emphasising some details and omitting others, and construct it for a certain meaning. The next time we tell it is more automatic. Every time we tell the story it is further embedded. We rarely revise or retell. The story becomes part of our collection of stories that forms our identity. It is how oral stories solidify. But if those stories are not based on the truth and if they hurt people, they need to be revised. And I would have explained to him that, like the stories of Greek mythology, his idea of Western civilisation needs to be fluid, because any story set in stone can be easily smashed.
Someone will remember us I say
Even in another time
—Sappho (trans. Anne Carson) •