I’m on the last couple of chapters of The Odyssey. Odysseus has just finished slaughtering the suitors. While still in disguise, he’s about to go play some really fucked up mind games with his father and wife, both of whom haven’t seen him in 20 years. He’s also about to, for reals, “clean house”: kill off any servants who don’t speak well of him. Also, I want to note that during his adventures, when his crew members get killed, it’s his fault about half time. So let there be no doubt in your mind: Odysseus is a Grade-A prick.
But he’s also the consummate Greek of his time. While The Iliad is a somewhat realistic representation of what it was like, sans all the crazy gods, to live in the warring tribes of the time (everyone raiding other groups for booty and slaves, often dying in meaningless skirmishes), The Odyssey is about regret, the importance of family, and, above all, clever Greek scheming.
Which leads me to one of my most favorite and most illuminating statements on comparative mythology, chapter 88 of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon: Randy and Enoch Root in prison, talking about what one can determine about how a culture treats clever people based on that culture’s mythology. God, this whole section is just so great, and I can’t help but sample from it en masse.
“Whereas Athena is famous for being the backer of Odysseus, who, let’s not forget, is the guy who comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse. Athena guides both Odysseus and Heracles through their struggles, and although both of these guys are excellent fighters, they win most of their battles through cunning or (less pejoratively) metis. And although both of them engage in violence pretty freely (Odysseus likes to call himself ‘sacker of cities’) it’s clear that they are being held up in opposition to the kind of mindless, raging violence associated with Ares and his offspring—Heracles even personally rids the world of a few of Ares’s psychopathic sons. I mean, the records aren’t totally clear—it’s not like you can go to the Thebes County Courthouse and look up the death certificates on these guys—but it appears that Heracles, backed up by Athena all the way, personally murders at least half of the Hannibal Lecterish offspring of Ares.
“So insofar as Athena is a goddess of war, what really do we mean by that? Note that her most famous weapon is not her sword but her shield Aegis, and Aegis has a gorgon’s head on it, so that anyone who attacks her is in serious danger of being turned to stone. She’s always described as being calm and majestic, neither of which adjectives anyone ever applied to Ares.”
“Athena/Hephaestus is sort of an interesting coupling in that he is another technology god. Metals, metallurgy, and fire were his specialties—the old-fashioned Rust Belt stuff. So, no wonder Athena gave him a hard-on! After he ejaculated on Athena’s thigh, she’s all eeeeeyew! and she wipes it off and throws the rag on the ground, where it somehow combines with the earth and generates Erichthonius. You know who Erichthonius was?”
“One of the first kings of Athens. You know what he was famous for?”
“Invented the chariot—and introduced the use of silver as a currency.”
“Oh, Jesus!” Randy clamps his head between his hands and makes moaning noises, only for a little while.
“Now in many other mythologies you can find gods that have parallels with Athena. The Sumerians had Enki, the Norse had Loki. Loki was an inventor-god, but psychologically he had more in common with Ares; he was not only the god of technology but the god of evil too, the closest thing they had to the Devil. Native Americans had tricksters—creatures full of cunning—like Coyote and Raven in their mythologies, but they didn’t have technology yet, and so they hadn’t coupled the Trickster with Crafts to generate this hybrid Technologist-god.”
“[I]n the case of Trickster gods the pattern is that cunning people tend to attain power that un-cunning people don’t. And all cultures are fascinated by this. Some of them, like many Native Americans, basically admire it, but never couple it with technological development. Others, like the Norse, hate it and identify it with the Devil.”
“Hence the strange love-hate relationship that Americans have with hackers.”
“Hackers are always complaining that journalists cast them as bad guys. But you think that this ambivalence is deeper-seated.”
“In some cultures. The Vikings—to judge from their mythology—would instinctively hate hackers. But something different happened with the Greeks. The Greeks liked their geeks. That’s how we get Athena.”
So, as much of an asshole that Odysseus is, and no matter how much he represents the status quo and the restoration of authority through conquest, this is why Odysseus is my favorite mythological figure. What’s the first thing he always does when he comes to a new island? He sends someone out to explore to see what the natives are like. And as much of a great wrestler/boxer he’s made out to be in The Iliad and archer in The Odyssey, it’s the mental ducking/weaving/grappling he does with everybody he meets, whether he knows them or not. It’s this representation and celebration of intelligence and cleverness over raw unthinking strength that makes me return to these two great works every few years. It’s my way of reaching back 2,500 and giving a whole culture a big fat wet sloppy high five.