My first exposure to Greek mythology was at the Lyceum—not the famed Lykeion in Athens, where Aristotle and his pupils strolled around as they discussed philosophy and beauty, but a movie theater on Fulton Road in Cleveland, where my brothers and I spent Saturday afternoons. The Lyceum was classic as opposed to classical: popcorn in red-and-white striped boxes, a stern lady usher who confiscated the candy we snuck in from outside, buzzers under the seats for a gimmicky thrill.
Every week, the Lyceum showed a double feature, usually a horror movie—The Mummy, Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon—paired with something mildly pornographic (and highly educational). At one Saturday matinee, I laid eyes for the first time on the Cyclops. The movie was Ulysses (1955), starring Kirk Douglas as the man of many turnings. In a way, it, too, was a horror movie, full of monsters and apparitions: a witch who turned men into pigs, sea serpents, Anthony Quinn in a short tight skirt.
Ulysses is the Latinate name for Odysseus and the one preferred by Hollywood and James Joyce. How Odysseus became Ulysses is, like many things that happened between Greece and Rome, impossible to say for sure. Scholars have suggested that the d, or delta, of Odysseus in Ionic Greek was originally an l, or lambda, in the Dorian and Aeolic dialects. Delta (Δ) and lambda (Λ) are similar in form—a wedge with or without a bar—but to my knowledge no one has suggested that Odysseus was the ancient equivalent of a typo for Ulysses. The name may have reached Rome independently as Ulixes through Sicily, the traditional home of the Cyclops.
In Catania, a city under Mount Etna built largely of polished black lava, souvenir shops sell ceramic figurines of the Cyclops. Cyclopes (plural) were a race of giants, similar to the Titans, clumsy prototypes for human beings. Polyphemus worked on Mount Etna, forging lightning bolts for Zeus. A friend from Catania told me some Sicilians believe that the Cyclops was Mount Etna, which erupted like Polyphemus’s eye after Odysseus poked it with a pointed stick, spewing into the sea stones that formed the Faraglioni di Acitrezza, dramatic stacked rocks in the Gulf of Catania. At any rate, one can imagine the story of the Cyclops going out into the world ahead of the epic poem, the way the Cyclops episode in the movie at the Lyceum preceded my knowledge of Homer. There is nothing like an old-fashioned Cyclops to get your attention.
Athena must have appeared in the movie—what is the Odyssey without Athena? She is the protector of Ulysses; he would not survive without her. Surely the hero invokes her—I must have heard her name. But I don’t recall meeting Homer’s gray-eyed goddess at the Lyceum. No tomes of mythology by Bulfinch, the d’Aulaires, or Edith Hamilton sat on the bookshelves in our house—in fact, there were no bookshelves in our house. But we had comic books and library cards, and I subsisted happily on the Brothers Grimm and Little Lulu. I did not, like a prodigy, read the Iliad in translation at fourteen. I had a weakness for the genre of the girl detective, for Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I also liked Poe and Dickens and Mark Twain and tried to read Hawthorne (yawn) and Sir Walter Scott (snore) and Dostoyevsky (coma). Anything I learned about Greek mythology was either absorbed through popular culture or through writers in English. In junior year at Lourdes Academy, the all-girls Catholic high school I attended in Cleveland, we read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the lesson of which, according to Sister Diane Branski, was that though Joyce had lost his faith (and left Ireland), he could never get away from the Church (or Dublin). And neither would we.
Perhaps the spirit of Athena hovered over Lake Erie, but in those days—the fifties and sixties, when the twentieth century still felt like the future—my primary model, like that of most girls in the normal course of things, was my mother. She cooked, made the beds, swept the floor. She was a world-class talker—“Your mom sure has the gift of gab,” people would say—and she sang as she washed the dishes, songs like “Fascination” and “I’ve Got You under My Skin.” But to me washing the dishes was nothing to sing about. And while her example was powerful—as a nine-year-old, I fantasized about having a toy carpet sweeper—I was dubious about following in her footsteps. For one thing, she rarely went anywhere.
My mother and I were outnumbered by the males in the family, and I disliked being grouped with her. I felt housebound. I remember the taste of the front door, which I pressed my tongue against in my desperation to get outside—harsh cold glass in winter, bitter metallic screen in summer. I was always comparing my mother with other girls’ mothers, wishing to trade up. The nuns gave me models other than my mother, and I had an inkling that I might be popular in the convent. I liked the idea of changing my name—it would be a fresh start—but I worried about having to get up early, at the gong of a bell, and go to Mass every day. The convent was something to fall back on in case I didn’t get married. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to get married. But the nun’s life seemed just as circumscribed as my mother’s.
Once, for sixth grade religion class, we were split into groups for a project on vocations. The nun handed out pamphlets describing what could be expected from each calling: you got married, you became a priest or a nun, or you remained single. I was put on the “single” panel. Remaining single did not feel like a choice—it was something you got stuck with, like the unmated card in a game of old maid. But the pamphlet pointed out that although you might not choose it, if you were to die tomorrow—tragically, at age twelve—you would perforce be single. The only model the Church offered a girl was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I suppose Athena became a model to me without my even realizing it: a third way. Athena, like Mary, is a virgin—parthéna—but she does not carry the paradoxical burden of maternity. She was born, fully formed and armed for battle, a warrior, from the head of Zeus. Her mother, by most accounts, was Metis, one of the Titans, rivals of the Olympians, meaning that Athena came from old stock. Because Metis wasn’t around (I am sorry to report that Zeus swallowed her while she was pregnant), Athena had none of the conflicts a girl has with her mother. She gets along well with Zeus’s wife, Hera, that most irritable of goddesses. Zeus never pressures her to marry.
Other women and girls may favor a different goddess. Many opt for Artemis, the huntress; someone who longs for children might identify with Demeter; great beauties are chosen by Aphrodite. Hera is not popular; in her Roman guise as Juno she is statuesque and confident, but what a bitch. For me, it had to be Athena. Whereas the Virgin Mary is a model of humility and servitude, Athena is the template for a liberated woman.
Athena is unfettered: she has no masculine deity to accommodate, no children to appease, no family obligations to juggle with her career. She is beholden to no one—Zeus treats her with respect and indulgence. Like a favorite daughter, she knows how to handle him. He trusts her judgment and lets her have her way. Her virginity may be one of the reasons Athenians chose her to be the patron of their city: she would be dedicated. The founding myth of Athens is that Athena and Poseidon were rivals for top honors in the city. Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis, and Poseidon caused salt water to spring up on its slopes. The gods judged the olive the greater gift and awarded the city to Athena.
Not that Athena doesn’t have domestic virtues: she is a weaver and a patron of the crafts, a civilizing influence. She’s not a fertility goddess, like Demeter and Artemis, but more of a survivor. Olive trees are legendarily resilient. Chop one down or burn it up, and new shoots grow from the stump. And Athena didn’t just plant that olive tree—someone had to impart the knowledge of how to cultivate it and how to press from its hard, bitter green fruit the precious essence of what the earth has to offer. Olive oil is an ingredient in everything from salads to shampoo, and the Greeks even used it as fuel, burning it in lamps. Athena seems to me to be the great example of using your resources wisely.
Most of all, Athena has tremendous feminine strength. In the Iliad, when Zeus lets the gods take up arms along with the mortals on the battlefield, Athena lays out Ares flat—Ares, the god of war! Athena can be terrifying. She wears the head of Medusa on her breast, at the center of her shield, or aegis. The Gorgon’s head was a gift from Perseus, who slew the monster while looking at her reflection in his shield instead of directly at her face, which would have turned him to stone. In art history, Medusa leers comically from a round frame: snaky locks for hair, tusks, a pig’s snout for a nose. She sticks out her tongue at you. The message is “Don’t mess with me, you weakling.”
Athena is direct: she never tries to seduce anyone or wheedle to get her way. Her brand of wisdom is a form of common sense, which was something I lacked, a muscle that did not get much exercise in college or graduate school. I was a good worker, though—the only job I ever had that I was truly terrible at was waiting on tables—and by the time I got to The New Yorker there were different kinds of women to observe: a cheerful receptionist heading back to graduate school, proofreaders of all styles—zealous, jealous, quietly brilliant—and wickedly good writers, like Pauline Kael and Janet Malcolm. When I was promoted to the copydesk, my dream job, and it was just me and the words, I had a crisis of confidence. No one thanked you when you did something right, but when you screwed up they had ways of letting you know.
The copydesk was like a sieve for prose: the copy editor filtered out impurities without adding anything new. I swung back and forth between extremes, trying to do less rather than more while also trying not to draw attention to myself by missing anything egregious. I wanted to write, so I was envious when one of my contemporaries at the office succeeded in placing a story in The Talk of the Town. When I copyedited a colleague’s work, I had to filter out my own impurities. One evening I ran into William Shawn in the elevator vestibule. “You look troubled,” he said. Probably I was worried about having to share an elevator with Mr. Shawn, but I told him I was not sure I would ever master my job on the copydesk. He gave me a steady look—we were almost the same height; he was five foot five, and his eyes were at the same level as mine—and assured me that I would learn by osmosis.
Athena turned out to be a good model for a copy editor. She wouldn’t worry about offending a writer or whether a writer liked her or not, and she wouldn’t let anyone get away with anything. I just had to trust that my motives were pure: I was there for the language. Once I’d absorbed the ethos of copyediting, and moved from the copydesk, where you couldn’t correct things even when you knew they were wrong, to the next level, among the copy editors I most admired—page O.K.’ers, in The New Yorker’s terminology—I stopped worrying so much. At a museum, I was attracted to a print of a Gorgon, leering comically with her tongue stuck out. I bought that print and pinned it up over my desk.
Mary Norris is the author of Greek to Me and the New York Times best seller Between You & Me, an account of her years in The New Yorker copy department. Originally from Cleveland, she lives in New York.
Excerpted from Greek to Me. Copyright © 2019 by Mary Norris. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.