The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was written by Homer

18.40, Friday 29 Sep 2023

I’ve been reading a cut of the Greek myths to my kid, who is almost 5. We’ve read it a few times over the last year. The same stories were my favourites growing up, so.

We had a conversation yesterday about the island of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey. Imagine an ice cream which tastes so great that, as soon as you taste it once, you don’t do anything else except eat that ice cream, ever.

Myths are school.

Let me unpack.

Look, I don’t have an education in the classics, but this is the timeline as I understand it, because it always confused me how the myths could be told in so many different ways.

Errors abound, I’m sure!

The pre-history here is Mycenaean culture, which came before the Ancient Greeks. They had writing, Linear B. There were cities – not an empire but palace states. And then around 1050BC, around the time of the Trojan War: it collapsed. The Bronze Age Collapse (as previously discussed) is a mystery, but there it is.

So that’s the context.

Imagine this then. A new civilisation: the Greeks were emerging from a Dark Age so dark that they never really knew it had happened.

Settlements are connected by roaming, illiterate, professional bards who compose, tell, and re-tell epic poems. Orality in all its variety. This new Greek culture walks in the ruins of cities they have no idea how to build, and finds writing they have no idea how to read.

Until 800 BC. The Greeks re-invent writing (they never read Linear B). The poems told out loud, which are already traditional by this point, are written down and formalised as the epics. Homer’s Odyssey is one, that’s what I’m reading with my kid now.

The epics tell all of history: the origin of the world, the titans, the gods, Prometheus, the kings and heroes, and finally the sack of Troy. So the myths end with the collapse of the Mycenaeans, maybe a folk memory; the heroic age is within touching distance of the Greeks.

The city states: by 600BC, Ancient Greece is a collection of rival cities, Athens, Thebes and the rest. The epics are well-known, and now traditional themselves. But old fashioned. Aristotle thinks they’re rubbish.

Now we’re in an age of competitive theatre. From about 500BC for a couple of centuries, the cities hold highly competitive dramatic festivals. Playwrights compete with new plays of comedy and tragedy.

So the myths are re-told. Being well-known source material, the traditional myths are deconstructed and re-made as psychological dramas. Sure there was this hero or this king or whatever, but what drove them to behave like that; what consequence did it have to treat with the gods; what is their arc.

Then: Alexander the Great unifies the city states and the Mediterranean and, in 323BC, dies. The centre of gravity is no longer the cities. Hellenistic culture is dispersed, over the entire region.

(In this period: the rise of the Roman Republic and then the Punic Wars – the great clash of the civilisations of Rome and Carthage. The front line was Sicily, and on that island, in Syracuse, a Greek colony, around 200BC: Archimedes. Archimedes was the John von Neumann of his time, a war scientist. I think of him mainly for - eureka! - the displacement of water, but he invented a heat ray, and a giant claw to lift and smash ships.)

Then civil war in the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar smashes it and his adopted heir becomes Augustus, the first emperor. 27 BC.

The nascent Roman Empire wrote its own history. In 8 AD the poet Ovid completed Metamorphoses, a new re-telling of the Greek myths that go beyond Troy and climax with Julius Caesar himself.

So we’ve got these three waves over a thousand years:

  • a bardic tradition culminating in Homer and the rest
  • a hotbed of competitive theatre that deconstructs the traditional myths into psychodramas
  • the propagandist Roman retelling of already ancient myths for the purpose of creating a sense of manifest destiny.

And now it’s two thousand years past that even, and we’re still telling variations of all the waves of all of these stories.

The timeline above (misrememberings all mine) is cribbed from a 2008 episode of In Our Time on the BBC.

Melvyn Bragg asks Professor of Classics Mary Beard, did they [the myths] have a function?

And here’s Beard’s reply:

You have to assume as a starting point that the fact that these things go on being told and recounted and sung and written about must mean they’re doing a really important job.

This is not some kind of mad conservatism on the part of the Greeks who go on telling these stories long after they’re of any use to them.

I think myth is a terribly economical form of thinking about the world.

… the underlying function is to help us think about what human and existence is like and why it’s so jolly difficult and hard and why we do what we do.

(Well, the transcript isn’t on that page. There’s a link to listen to the episode and I recommend it very much.)

I remember that idea grabbing my attention when I first heard it.

But I couldn’t grasp it.

See, in the abstract I could see how a myth could be - in Beard’s words - a framework for thinking about who we are.

My struggle was that I couldn’t see how that would be actualised. What is the actual chain of events? Who would say what to whom, and when, and with what sufficient frequency. What is the path by which an epic poem creates social norms? I couldn’t make it out.

Until I was reading to my kid.

See, I’ve also had school on my mind.

School, for us here in 2023, is two things:

  • skills – exam results, achievements, medals, learning, learning how to learn, the ostensible purpose of school. It’s what we measure, it’s what we talk about in the newspapers.
  • socialisation – values, instilling the “framework for thinking about who we are”.

Good educators are all about the socialisation. But it isn’t measured. As far as the position of “school” in society is concerned, it is a side-effect.

So pretend we had no schools. How would that work?

Skills you could get by apprenticeships and observation. That’s the easy bit.

Socialisation? Where’s the absolutely necessary shared curriculum that creates a single culture?

Aha, the myths.

You would tell and re-tell the epic poems and discuss, well, the lotus-eaters because you’re going to encounter lotus-like things in life; and the various permutations of xenia; and loyalty, and love, and revenge; and (again as Beard says) how to think about sacrifice, and so on. All these situations played out for examination and discussion, a curriculum for socialisation, a school in a book!

(Or the Bible. Or the I Ching.)

So now I understand how these texts, in their great detail, aren’t just helpful alignment, but in an historical context where the “job to be done” of schools was not performed by a bricks-and-mortar institution, these texts are necessary.

There’s always a lot of talk about building this fictional device but we already have the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and it was written by Homer.

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