Irish and Greek Mythology: Musings

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Here are some musings on the differences between Irish mythology and Greek mythology.

Anyone familiar with James Joyce’s Ulysses will probably know that Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey as a structuring device, hence the title. In doing this, was Joyce proposing a hybrid culture? A kind of Greek and Irish civilisation, if you will? With the Greeks providing the form and the Irish the content? With this in mind, I’d like to compare and contrast Irish and Greek mythology. I will focus on the differences because, well, it wouldn’t be a hybrid culture if there were none. Celt and Greek have a lot to learn from each other.

The first major difference is imagination. Greek mythology possesses a universal imagination whereas Irish mythology is often more particular and local. But let’s bring in Joyce again here and consider what he said about his art: in the particular is contained the universal. Irish mythology bristles with imagination. It is often strange and bizarre. See the description of Cu Chulainn’s warp spasm in the Tain. Some critics characterize the myths as ‘childish’ because of this uninhibited imagination but they are wrong.  This small mindedness is typical of those who don’t know the importance of a healthy imagination no matter what your age is. Greek mythology doesn’t have this unrestrained, liberated character. It doesn’t have the same imaginative and emotional exuberance. What it does have, however, is a tremendous clarity and insight into the human condition. It is easier to decipher the meaning of the Greek myths. Irish mythology is more enigmatic. It doesn’t give up its secrets so easily.

Another major difference is expression of national character. Irish mythology is a national treasure for all Irish people. It speaks with an authentic Irish voice. Reading the Tain or the Book of Invasions is like looking into a mirror. I don’t know of any other literature that expresses what it is to be Irish so well. As for what ‘Irish’ is, that is a question not easily answered. You’ll just have to take my word for it. It is even more hard to say what the character of the Ancient Greeks was but I would guess that it involved clarity of mind and being philosophical.

Greek mythology has a longer history than Irish mythology. Homer’s Iliad was written around 700 BC whereas the earliest version of The Tain we have dates from around the later part of the 11th century AD. Because of this, writers have been writing about the Greek myths for a far longer time then they have the Irish myths. The Classical Tradition is strong but the Irish or Celtic tradition has come on over the last couple of centuries through writers such as Lady Morgan, Synge, Yeats and Heaney. Perhaps the finest examples of the Celtic tradition are found in the early poetry of Yeats, especially his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds. To my mind, the best of these poems are as good as any poems written in the Classical Tradition.

So what of this hybrid of Irish and Greek culture that Joyce seems to be proposing? What of this meeting of Celt and Greek? Well, it is clear that they have a lot to learn from each other and a lot the agree on. So it is a friendship well worth cultivating, I would say.

Writing The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien

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The Chronicles of Dan Lee O’Brien was written over a period of four to five months in 2015. It is fair to say that it flowed out of me. Reading it now I’d say the best quality is the dialogue. It seems to capture the rhythms of speech successfully as well as facilitating the discussion of ideas. One of my favourite creators is the film maker Quentin Tarantino. His dialogue is, above all, lucid and intelligent and I’ve tried to emulate that in the Chronicles. However, the writer I am most indebted to is undoubtedly Neil Gaiman. The whole idea of putting gods into a modern context comes from him, especially the Sandman comic and his novel, American Gods.

When writing the book my overall aim was to play with the Irish myths. To make them more fun and accessible. I also wanted to use them to talk about the power of the imagination which is, perhaps, the dominant theme of the stories. I tried to keep the stories clever and humorous and ensure they have a broad appeal. My favourite story is probably Gungnir, as the concept of the story is clever but it also has a strong autobiographical element, so it is close to me.

The character Dan Lee O’Brien came about as I wanted to create a protagonist or anti-hero who was both old fashioned and cool: a pipe smoking, bike riding old man who is a magician and investigator of the supernatural. He is like an older, more laid back John Constantine. I also tried to put in strong female characters, both goddesses and humans. This seems to have paid off as most of the positive feedback I have gotten has come from women.

I also wanted to give people things to think about e.g. the need for imagination to bring about social change, the power of music and the idea of being haunted by ghosts of the past. I tried to put a lot of ideas into the mix to create something complex and multi-faceted.

All books are a journey. I hope those who choose to take the journey with me will find it both entertaining and stimulating.

 

Reflections on the Imagination

For this writer the hardest part of creating is coming up with ideas. Imaginative ideas. It takes up so much mental energy that I have little left for the writing part. But when my energy is restored I find that putting words on paper and giving shape to my thoughts and ideas is a lot easier than that initial imagining. I usually lie down on my bed for the initial imagining stage and it is by far the hardest work you can do whilst lying down on your back. A line from Yeats’ Adam’s Curse comes to mind:

…and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisey set

Of bankers, school masters and clergy men.

The ancient myth about the birth of Athena is typical Greek brilliance, an insight into the nature of the imagination. The myth goes that Athena just popped out of Zeus’ head, suddenly, from out of nowhere. The imagination comes, seemingly, from out of nowhere and therefore it is a mystery on a par with music and wine. That the myth refers to the imagination is perhaps confirmed by the role given to Athena in Homer’s Odyssey. She gives Odysseus ideas for getting out of trouble and getting back to his home on Ithaca. She is like a personification of the imagination. In the poem she is often referred to as ‘the goddess of the flashing eyes’. What could be a better metaphor for the imagination, for the inner eye?

So the imagination is hard work and it is mysterious. All I can add to this is that it is stressful. It seems to come about by mental chafing in the same way that fire is started by rubbing wood against wood. We can bring in another myth here. The myth of Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to man and was punished for it. Is fire another metaphor for the imagination? For the imagination in all its power and mystery must be the greatest gift that man possesses. All original thought comes from the initial spark of the imagination. Every invention, every great work of art is the offspring of the imagination. All civilisation and progress owes a debt to the imagination.

So the next time you are dreaming with your eyes open, remember that you are not an idler. Or if you are an idler then it is an important idleness. You are partaking in an activity which has lifted humanity to its very summits. You are partaking in something divine. For the writer who must come up with an original idea it is hard work but once it happens and the words begin to cascade and flow no writer will deny that it is worth it.