The Good, the Bad, and the Mythology
I’ve been studying Greek Mythology off and on since about the sixth grade. While I haven’t taken classes on it and only own a few mythology books, these stories remain important to me and led to my interest in Ancient Greek history, which led to my interest in Ancient Roman history. But for much of the time I’ve studied mythology, there was always something that bothered me about modern representations of ancient myths. It was something I couldn’t explain, but it was a trait that all of these representations had in common. From movies to young adult books to computer and video games, there was an inexplicable common thread they all had that I could never pin down, but that bugged me to no end because it made the stories feel wrong.
Several years ago, I finally figured out what was bugging me. It’s the fact that pretty much all of these movies, books, and games were treating these myths as ‘good versus evil’ conflicts. This vexes me because the Ancient Greeks didn’t think in terms of good versus evil–this dichotomy is largely a Judeo/Christian construct. On close analysis, none of the gods were inherently good nor evil. All of them were capable of benevolent acts of compassion and spiteful acts of disproportionate revenge. Even the Titans–who’ve become popular villains in mythology-based computer and video games the past fifteen years–were essentially trying to protect themselves from the threat that the Olympians posed to their rule.
I think the most common modern misrepresentation is when movies make Hades synonymous with Satan (I’m looking at you, Disney…). In truth, of Kronos’s three sons, Hades was probably the least ignoble. Sure, he was kind of a hard-nosed bastard to heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus when they entered his realm, but these uppity mortals were trespassing on his turf. Hades’s only truly villainous act, at least that I can find, was his abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. Yes, it was against her will, certainly, but in the end he was willing to work out a compromise with the surface gods, and, to the best of my knowledge, remained faithful to her ever afterwords. How many maidens were similarly abducted by wise and benevolent Zeus? And how many of these abductees did he bother to protect from the wrath of the ever-vengeful Hera? And yet, Hades is the villain?
Being somewhat naive at the time, I had genuinely high hopes for the movie Troy when it hit theaters in 2004. Homer’s Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, and I was stoked to get to see a large-scale film representation of it. The key reason I love the Iliad is that there were good guys and bad guys on both sides of the conflict. The Trojans and the Achaean Greeks were two hot-headed powerhouses with legitimate grievances against the other. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I don’t recall that Homer tried to establish who was right or wrong in this fight. Highest among the changes that bugged me about Troy was that the Greeks were quite clearly depicted as the bad guys–as being in the wrong. Agamemnon, who was merely power-hungry and had to be talked out of withdrawing in Homer’s version, became genuinely sinister and obsessed with taking the city. Similarly, Homer portrayed Menelaus as being genuinely conflicted over whether or not to kill Helen or take her back, yet the film depicts him as resolute in breaking Helen’s neck. While the duels in Troy were well done and the battle scenes were suitably epic, the film’s constant misrepresentation of the conflict continues to color my opinion of the movie.
I’ve heard arguments that by reducing these stories to good versus evil, modern storytellers are trying to help the myths appeal to modern audiences. My response is duh, what else could they stand to gain from mutating the mythology. My issue is that–on top of disrespecting the storytelling skills of the original authors and the cultures they represented–modern writers, movie makers, etc are missing out on the opportunity to tell far more interesting, nuanced stories about heroic, tragic, ultimately human characters, be they gods or mortals.