WHAT is at once so familiar and so strange as the world of the Greek myths? The nightly skies are strewn with planets and constellations bearing the Greek or Roman names of mythical gods and heroes: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Orion, the Pleiades. English literature glitters with allusions to Apollo, Pan, Odysseus, Troy, the Muses, Helen, Leda and the Swan.
Classical values are woven into the fabric of Western culture. Classical ideals of self-government informed the thought of America's founding fathers and also inspired the authors of the French Revolution. Concepts of athletic competition, geometry, metaphysics, and aesthetics also owe much to classical models.
Yet, how alien and archaic this vanished world sometimes seems: a world of omens and oracles, where the sacred and the profane mingled close at hand and a polytheistic pantheon of gods and goddesses seemed to spend most of their time acting out a lurid soap opera of passion, jealousy, revenge, seduction, and abduction, with a hefty measure of metamorphosis thrown in to keep things moving. Nor is there any single source or sacred text, like the Bible or the Koran, to which the reader can turn to study Gre ek mythology.
As the Italian author and editor Roberto Calasso points out in "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony," "The Greeks were unique among the peoples of the Mediterranean in not passing on their stories via a priestly authority. They were rambling stories, which is partly why they so easily got mixed up. And the Greeks became so used to hearing the same stories told with different plots that it got to be a perfectly normal thing for them."
What we know of Greek mythology comes from many sources: statues, temples, coins, inscriptions, and of course literature - from the solemn works of Homer to the playful writings of Ovid and the disbelieving satires of Lucian.
Calasso draws on a vast array of variant myths and stories and molds them into a single text, which - though scarcely definitive - may still be one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible modern attempts at recreating this vanished world.
Part narrative, part meditation, this marvelously engrossing book plunges the reader right into the thick of the mythological action with its opening scene, in which Zeus, disguised as a bull, carries off a girl called Europa from the coastline of Asia to the island of Crete. There, her descendants, the lonely, monstrous Minotaur and his sister Ariadne, will play their parts in the story of Theseus, founder of Athens.
Meanwhile, Europa's brother Cadmus, sent to search for his abducted sister, ends up founding the city of Thebes, saving Zeus himself from a primordial monster, and marrying the lovely Harmony, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite.
Winding his way through the maze of these and other stories with clarity and brio, Calasso illuminates the twists and turns of plot linking one myth to another, while elucidating the underlying themes and patterns that give each myth a ghostly resemblance to other myths. Again and again, there are heroes who slay monsters, heroines who betray their countries to bestow themselves on monster-slaying heroes from afar. Everywhere, one finds abandoned women who hang themselves, youths and maidens who transfor m themselves into trees and flowers to avoid the pursuit of gods who, in turn, transform themselves into snakes, bulls, swans, eagles, and wolves to seduce their human lovers.
Calasso's concise, straightforward style of storytelling untangles the most complicated plots, while his pithy comments on Greek culture and politics provide substantive food for thought. In the eternal shenanigans of the Olympian deities, he recognizes the human spirit's desire for a world of greater freedom and playfulness.
The Olympians, he reminds the reader, realized the overwhelming power of Ananke, or Necessity. Yet "they preferred to make believe that they were subject to Eros just as much as to Ananke, though all the time aware that ... this was just a blasphemous fraud." Ananke's inescapable net of circumstance is camouflaged by Aphrodite's brightly hued girdle of romantic illusion, because if "Ananke commands alone, life becomes rigid."
Many of Calasso's insights are not new: the idea of Greece as an aesthetic culture, the notion of Sparta as a forerunner of the modern totalitarian state, and the linking of Apollo and Dionysus as interrelated opposites. Minds as diverse as Matthew Arnold, Friedrich Nietzsche, and I. F. Stone have explored similar terrain, often more brilliantly and more thoroughly.
But Calasso's emphasis on telling the stories rather than analyzing them - or, more accurately, telling them with just enough analysis to make them more lucid and intriguing - is a refreshing approach. It differs from Mary Renault's approach. Whereas the author of "The Bull from the Sea," "The King Must Die," and other books, wrote full-fledged novels making imaginative use of modern fictional techniques to capture the flavor of an archaic sensibility, Calasso's work is closer to an anthology, albeit one
in which the collected stories are sinuously intertwined. It is a work of power and grace. These qualities are apparent even in the rather clumsy English translation by Tim Parks.