Andrew Callimach, Lovers' Legends: The
Gay Greek Myths (Haiduk Press, 2002)
Andrew Callimach, Lovers' Legends Unbound [book & cd] (Haiduk Press, 2004)
For a slim volume a mere 115 pages precedes the afterword and
footnotes Lovers' Legends packs a lot of punch into a small space.
Even a cursory read of the stories Callimach has chosen for his book illustrates
that these are not your father's Greek myths. Indeed, while some stories and
characters are familiar to the average reader, some are decidedly more obscure
or even alternate takes on the familiar. Callimach's premise is that adaptations
over time have stripped many of these myths of most, if not all, intimations
of homosexuality or homoeroticism, which seems contrary to the Greeks' espousal
of man-youth relationships. Thus, he has taken on the task of reclaiming these
myths and casting them in a different light, one more favorable to love between
men. Not for the sake of titillation, but to recapture an aesthetic long lost.
As a framing device interspersed between the various myths, Callimach presents bits and pieces of a dialogue by Lucian, "Different Loves," which takes on the issue of love of men versus love of women. It's an amusing, intriguing read, but comes across, at first blush, as being considerably misogynistic. I am apparently not the only reader to have been brought up short by this, as the subject is broached in an online interview with the author, which can be found in on the Gay Today Web site. Callimach plays off both Lucian's misogyny and homophobia (as represented by the opposing characters in the dialogue) as "outrageous nonsense" in support of "rollicking good fun." I'm not sure I entirely buy that in an ideal world, people should be able to acknowledge one view without denigrating the other but it is a useful framing device, nonetheless.
The stories themselves are a delight to read. Callimach has given readers a fresh view into even the most familiar of myths. There's Zeus and his beautiful cup-bearer, Ganymede; Hercules and his various lovers (Hylas, Iolaus); and even Narcissus, who fell in love with himself. The chapter on Orpheus is fascinating, for most of us know only of his love for the woman Eurydice, but here we read of his relationships with Apollo and the mortal Calais. Apollo surfaces again in "Apollo and Hyacinth," the latter of whom had the misfortune to be beloved of several men. Callimach also provides some more obscure myths such as "Pelops in Pisa" and "Laius and Goldenhorse."
Rounding out the book are an afterword, footnotes, and acknowledgments for the many photographs of Greek artwork found throughout. Helen Peterson's afterword provides solid support for Callimach's premise, quoting a wildly different translation of Narcissus' moment of discovery, one in which you would never realize he's fallen for himself, a beautiful teenage boy rather, it reads as if he's found his female equivalent in his reflection.
While I enjoyed the book immensely, I have a couple of niggling problems with Callimach's language and presentation. First, he occasionally lapses into very modern, slangy language at times. It's hard to imagine a proud Greek man referring to his youthful lover as "sweetheart" in the company of other men. Callimach may have been striving to make the stories more accessible to modern readers, but such use of language amidst the more "classical" language that predominates these tales is quite jarring.
My second complaint is of a more scholarly nature: these retellings are Callimach's interpretations, largely grounded in his solid research findings, but on more than one occasion, seemingly spun from thin air. He's clear about the highly interpretive nature of some passages in the footnotes, but you'll have to dig that deep to realize the tenuous nature of that particular interpretation. I think Callimach should have been more up front about the difficulties he encountered researching the myths (perhaps in the absent Introduction) rather than tuck the admission away in individual footnotes.
The most glaring example of this is a quote he attributes to Achilles, lamenting the death of his beloved Patroclus, "Why so ungrateful, after all our kisses? Why so uncaring for the holy union of our thighs?" Callimach mentions in the footnotes that the quote is from a fragment of a lost play by Aeschylus, but fails to mention the character who actually utters the lines. Perhaps it is Achilles, but if so, he should have stated as much. Such wishful thinking detracts from the plausibility of those stories where more solid information or evidence is available and often it is; Callimach seems to be a very patient and thorough researcher, to judge from the age and obscurity of his source materials.
Accompanying the book is a later release, Lovers' Legends Unbound, a second volume containing excerpts from the first, adapted by director Agnes Lev to be read aloud, which they are on the accompanying CD. Actor Tim Carter gives voice to the gods and heroes in each of the nine story tracks, imbuing them with life through his alternately husky, clear or soft tones. The book itself is clothbound and illustrated with many of the same photos from Lovers' Legends. Book and CD together make a nice companion piece.
Callimach should be applauded for taking on the task of revisiting the myths and presenting them to modern readers sans modern censureship. My reservations aside, I believe the stories are bold, refreshing and proud and they deserve to be read.
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