One of the coolest things I saw at The Met whilst on vacation was also one of the first, in the first room I entered. It’s a vase (like an amphora? An urn? I don’t recall the term for the particular type) depicting Perseus’ decapitation of Medusa, and Pegasus emerging from the wound.
I mean, this is one of the most well known stories of all time. It’s been told and retold countless times; and even though you may not know the actual story of Perseus and Medusa, or the weird way Pegasus was born, you definitely know what a Pegasus is. You most likely also know very well that Medusa has snakes for hair and that her gaze’ll turn you to stone. There’s even a strong likelihood that you know (even if you didn’t remember the hero’s name) Perseus cut her head off by using his mirrored shield so he wouldn’t have to look directly at her, and that after her defeat he wielded her severed head as quite the effective weapon.
Like I was mentioning before about the window/mirror concept of stories, this is an example of how astonishing it is to look down a time tunnel so long: this vessel has that story depicted on it, clear as clay. And it’s, like, two thousand years old. And yet I can look at it and go, Oh yeah: that story. I know that story.
I have been a scholar of what I call by the collective noun Old Story for a very very long time. Most of my remembered life, in fact. In my teen years I discovered Joseph Campbell’s studies that came before mine, and his powerful works of synthesis (revolutionary for his time) excited me very much. Still does, actually, especially because I myself in my own works and studies thereon have expanded it beyond heterosexual masculinity in a way that honors Campbell’s work, doesn’t butcher it like so many feminists do whose scholarship isn’t as rigorous. But that’s a rant for another time. Don’t “at” me, c’mon: I’m a feminist myself. But just take two seconds to look up the actual etymology of the word “history” to understand why the current term “herstory” irks me so.
There are many reasons why I’m excited about the monomyth, and why it makes plenty of people uncomfortable. But it comes back to the way I always describe it, particularly to my writing students: we’re all skeletons underneath. Strip me of my clothes and flesh and do the same to the most different looking person to me, and stand our skeletons next to each other. Odds are you won’t see much of a difference, if any. Maybe one of us is a little taller, or if you know how to look at bones, you’ll notice our assigned sex might be different. But the differences are minuscule, really. Put our flesh and our skin and our hair and our clothing back on over them, and that’s where we’ll begin to show our differences. The base, though, the skeleton? Pretty much the same.
That’s what makes those old stories so potent, and (I would aver) is why we keep telling them, over and over. They’re our base and inner structure, our skeleton; they’re what keep us standing upright.
Did you know that there’s a version of Cinderella in every single culture on earth? Every one. No exception. Fun fact. And we haven’t stopped telling it.
Perseus and Medusa aren’t as pervasive, you say? So tell me: which of the My Little Ponies has wings? What was the main conflict in the second Harry Potter book? And isn’t there another YA series with Percy and a bunch of Greek gods?
The Greek gods are like the ultimate reality show, or soap opera whose drama never ends. And why should it? It’s what keeps us going. What keeps us standing.