Titan attacks Saturn, his younger brother, and threatens to strike him…
But Vesta stayed it coming, and withal
Came Ceres and Sibylla thrusting thither:
They hug young Saturn, but on Titan fall,
Thundering on him with clamours; altogether,
The younger brother they their sovereign call,
And bid the elder pack, they care not wither.
The people second them. Thus in disgrace,
The stigmatic is forced to leave the place.
This is a section from Troia Britanica by Thomas Heywood, freely available on the valuable website A Dictionary of Shakespeare’s Classical Mythology.
Cities across Renaissance Europe wanted their own Aeneid to trace a lineage to the Classical World. City elders concocted fanciful histories to show they were the true descendants of heroic Trojans escaped from the burning remains of a Troy overwhelmed by perfidious Greeks. Whilst they were at it they might invent some other story about the paladins of Charlemagne and the Knights of the Round Table and, if the local priest happened to wander by, they almost certainly rounded it all off with a saint’s legend.
The stories are legends because they deal with real people. Myths on the other hand do not deal with real people, but with nymphs, gods and goddesses. Myth and legend are not easy to separate, however. A mythic figure can cross over and even become embodied in tan historical person person, a legendary event. The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, for example, is an event in the legend of a character who has some claim to having existed, but that does not mean the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection is not mythic: it taps into the same sources as the myths of Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Dionysos. Now you could look at this in two ways: you could say that the writers of the legend of Jesus chose elements from myth-stories to sauce up their history; or you could say that the myth-makers chose to dress their myth up in historical-seeming clothes.
The latter explanation is called Euhemeristic after the commentator Euhemerus a Hellenistic writer of the 4th century BC who found the stories of the gods all too much to handle and decided to do something about it. He was living in rational times so he tried to make sense of all the stories that came down to him. His hypothesis was that all the fanciful stories of the gods were no more than corrupted variants of the original stories and that, by diligent reading and a careful process of pruning, he would be able to restore the original stories. The result is a little like Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, an entertaining period piece that tells us a lot about its author. All of the stories of the gods are, for him, fanciful stories of real leaders that the credulous plebeians converted into gods after their deaths. I can’t help but feel outraged for the peasants that the piety they show to their gods was turned by a court mythographer into adoration of the person they paid their taxes to!
Have another look at the stanza I quoted above and you will see the god Saturn engaging in a thoroughly domestic dispute with his brother Titan. When he is attacked his sisters rush in and gather around him. You can imagine seeing this represented on stage, with heavy melodrama and much heaving and sighing. It would be thoroughly naturalistic. Saturn would not even have to look like a god. Artists also had fun turning classical myths into soap opera. Have a look at Tintoretto’s Vulcan and Venus painting with Mars hiding under the table and a sleeping Cupid on the window sill!
This is turning myth into legend. You can see that it would please tyrants everywhere to feel that their special qualities would in time lead to apotheosis, that they would eventually acquire the status of gods and goddesses. It was worth the effort to invest some energy in creating the myth whilst you were alive. How hard it would be to separate what we really know about Elizabeth I from all the mythologizing Gloriana penumbra.
Shakespeare’s world of myth is quite different from Heywood’s. Of course, Shakespeare knows his Classical gods and goddesses, but he takes his sources from local culture. When Falstaff treads the boards he is real and mythic at the same time. You are aware of the Saturnalia and the feast of misrule and Dionysos. They all come to you when you see this embodiment of wit, but he is his own. C.L. Barber in his classic study Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy gives an excellent repertoire of precedents for Shakespeare’s creations. Now, you could come over all Euhemeristic on me and say there really was a Sir John Falstaff. You could go rooting through the archives and come up with a real body to peg on the fictive body. However, it seems to me that there is something essentially mythological about Falstaff on stage. Try this thought experiment: an historical novel in the style of a BBC mini-series about the “real” Falstaff. Does that premise creak?
For me it does, but I have been spending a lot of time with Ted Hughes recently. There is a reader who goes straight to the myth, however fanciful it may seem. I can’t follow him all the time but, by god, I love the aliveness of his reading!
Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being