I have been meaning to write about why I created this blog. Some thoughts on a section from the c. 2nd century AD novel Daphnis and Chloe might explain my love for myths. The scene takes place after a group of angry city slickers attempt to capture Chloe, lover of Daphnis and his co-protagonist. The characters, country people on the island of Lesbos, are relaxing after thanking Pan and the Nymphs for their help in returning her. Daphnis’ foster father Lamon tells the story of the invention of the syrinx. We do not exactly know the details of the ancient Greek syrinx, but it was a sort of pan-pipe. It is Daphnis’ favorite instrument and a trope for the pastoral Greek genre. When Lamon finishes, Tityros, the son of Philetas the wise neighbor, brings his father’s syrinx so that Philetas can demonstrate his musical prowess.
Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, Book 2, Chapters 34 – 35
34. “Syrinx herself was no instrument, but a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice. She herded sheep, played with the nymphs, and sang just as now. While she was out grazing and playing and singing, Pan came upon her, and he tried to convince her to gratify his desire. He even announced that he would make all of her goats give birth to twins if she did. But she scoffed at his love, for she would never accept a lover who was not either all man or all goat. Pan jumped at her, seeking to compel her by force. Syrinx fled him and his violence, but as she ran, she grew tired. She hid herself among some reeds and made herself invisible in the marsh. In his anger, Pan cut down the reeds but did not find the girl. Only then understanding her suffering, he bound the cut reeds together with wax. He did so unevenly—for he did not love each in equal measure—and so devised the instrument, so that the beautiful maiden is now the musical instrument.”
35. So Lamon ended his mythic account, and Philetas praised him, for he had told a story even sweeter than a song. Just then, Tityros came back to his father with the syrinx, a great instrument (ὄργανον) of enormous reeds. Where it was bound by wax it had been embroidered with bronze. One would have thought that this one was the very one Pan had first fastened together. So Philetas sat up straight and tested the reeds to see if they were clear for playing. Satisfied that his breath would pass through unhindered, he blew like he was all of a sudden a young man. It seemed even as though his piping was accompanied by a flute, such did the sound ring out. After a moment he eased away the power of the sound and changed the melody into something sweeter. He demonstrated every skill in the musical pantheon: it was good for the cows; it was suited to the goats; it was dear to the sheep, for he played to the sheep’s sense of delight, the cow’s taste for grandeur, and the keen ear of the goat all at the same time. An imitation of all syrinxes came from just his one.
(Translations will always be my own unless I specify otherwise.)
Part of my love for the myth comes from its mere artistry. To the modern mind, it is the fantasy and science fiction genres that satisfy the love for imagination. The love is the same. The story takes an ordinary object, here a musical instrument, and imbues it with a magic it could previously have held. The “truth” of the myth is irrelevant, even to the characters who hear it; the mythified object becomes a testament to the power of human musing regardless.
I also love the ambiguity of a good myth. Interpretation is paradoxical. The more a piece of fiction resists interpretation, the more compelling the interpretive process becomes. This paradox does have limits, of course. A white canvas is obnoxious, not profound. In order to satisfy the paradox, a story has to provide a genuine path of interpretation that ultimately leads to the seeker getting lost in a maze of twists contradictions. Immediately hitting a dead end is not enough.
In this case, the myth of Syrinx begins as the lovely account of a talented girl in the fields and quickly turns to grotesque sexual violence. That Pan’s behavior is inexcusable is not in dispute—the difficulty arises from the reader’s complicity in it. The syrinx is the beloved instrument of all of the characters we have so far been made to care for. It is integral to the pastoral genre and the novel. Pan’s brutality is therefore requisite for our enjoyment of Daphnis and Chloe’s love story. The little myth is a masterstroke of dextrous cruelty by the otherwise unknown author Longus, who locks us in an impossible moral position with it.
Pan’s position in the broader novel’s plot also foils our search for a clear way out. We hear of his brutalization of Syrinx only moments after he has saved Chloe from a possibly similar fate. After Chloe is impiously seized by marauding townies (yes, they are supposed to be funny in the story), Pan responds to Daphnis’ plea that he rescue her. He threatens her pirate captors and terrifies them with a demonstration of his power until they agree to release her. As reprehensible as the attempted rape of Syrinx is, Pan’s capacity for violence is therefore as horrifying as it is necessary. We cannot read the book without simultaneously deploring and appreciating him.
Finally, Philetas compounds our frustration when he takes hold of his own, magnificent syrinx and fills the world with a perfect and all-inclusive musical harmony. The Greek word that I have translated “instrument” here is ὄργανον, which remains in the text above. Its various meanings came with it into the English word “organ.” For example, at least four centuries before Daphnis and Chloe, Plato uses the word to describe a bodily organ, in his case the eye. Its musical meaning in English is now restricted to those big things in churches (which are just pan-pipes with keys and pedals), but the wordplay in Daphnis and Chloe is clear. The lovely neighbor helping to guide the young lovers is seen playing an instrument built from the body parts of an ancient victim of sexual violence. He even does so in the very presence of Chloe herself, whose safety from sexual violation is the sine qua non of the entire novel.
Sure, all of this is comprehensible in the context of Greek patriarchy, but that fact only helps us understand the myth’s cultural sources. It does nothing to help the reader out of their moral jam. We may interpret Pan as a manifestation of ancient Greek misogyny. He is, but we have not stopped rooting for him. We are now back where we started: forced to root for someone we despise.
The only way out is to toss the book aside, but nothing could be more baby-with-the-bathwater, because these uncomfortable positions form one of the pillars of all storytelling, not just those things we now call “myths.” By grappling with the difficult questions a storyteller raises in fiction, we metaphorically grapple with those in our own lives. What must one do when one is complicit? We can practice with Pan. To toss the book aside is hubris. It is to assume that these questions are easy.
The art of the storyteller is therefore the art of the gods. The gods throw the mortals into a strange, impossible existence and see what happens when they try to sort it out. The storyteller’s job is to distill the resulting helplessness into manageable, risk-free imitations and then dump them on us. We only end up with more questions, but a good storyteller never pretends to have any answers anyway.
Not to worry, I didn’t start this blog because I think I’m the next Homer, but these difficult questions are why I like myths so much. I do not actually know of any other reason anybody ever reads fiction. We all like to imagine, and we all like to ask questions. This blog is an attempt to do both of those things. You will have to judge if I succeed.