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Greek Myth in the Discworld Series
Ancient Greek myths and narratives have long held a special place in the imaginations of writers. Oftentimes their impact is subconscious, part of a great cultural tide of story types told and retold so often that the writer does not even know the original source of what they’re referencing; just as often these ancient narratives are referenced directly and purposefully to draw comparisons or play with fictional tropes. This second scenario is very much the case in writer Terry Pratchett’s series of fantasy books focusing on the Discworld. The Discworld books are satirical in nature and toy with many different concepts from its real world counterpart—religion in not in any way excluded. Though the myths of many cultures are explored in the Discworld series, this post will focus primary on its treatment of Ancient Greek myths, diverging into Ancient Greek culture and history at the points where they impact myth and feed into legend. There are currently 40 novels in the Discworld series (with several companion books alongside them), so a thorough treatment of every instance of a reference to Greek mythology would be impossible in the course of this article. Instead the focus will be placed upon four books in which Greek mythology makes up at least a vital subplot, if not the entire plot. These four books are (covered in order of publication): Pyramids, published in 1989; Small Gods, published in 1992; The Last Hero, published in 2001; and Wintersmith, published in 2006. Each book will be covered in terms of their references to Greek mythology and the reactions and changes made to the original ancient sources. Ultimately this posting will see what function these mythical elements perform within these stories.
A little background into the realm of Discworld is necessary before we delve too far into the books themselves. The Discworld is, as suggested by its name, a world shaped like a flat disc. The world rests on the back of four massive elements who themselves stand on top of Great A’Tuin, the star turtle, who swims through space. The pantheon of the Discworld is a bit of a complicated matter due to the fact that new gods are frequently created. There are gods, demons, dark gods, elementals, monsters from the dungeon dimensions, anthropomorphic personifications and miscellaneous characters that aren’t quite mortal, but don’t totally fit into any of the above categories. The attitude toward gods on the Disc is somewhat different from the real world because the interplay between divine and real is much more strong—for instance, anyone who questioned the gods would have to worry about the very real possibility of being reduced to a pile of ash.
It is easy to guess from the title of the first book this paper will discuss, Pyramids, that the main plot subject is Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture, not Ancient Greek. However, Greek myth and legend are still very much involved. The main character of the story, Teppic, becomes the new king of Djelibeybi (the Discworld analogue for Ancient Egypt) after his father’s death. Because of the magically unstable pyramid to end all pyramids he built for his father, the Kingdom of Djelibeybi is warped out of time and space and effectively disappears while he is outside of it. In order to find a way to restore his kingdom, Teppic travels to the bordering country of Ephebe, hoping that its many philosophers can help him. Now Ephebe, based off numerous references in this book and in other books that mention the country, is clearly the Discworld counterpart to Ancient Greece. For example: one of the people Teppic meets in Ephebe is named Iesope, who is described as the greatest fable teller in the world. His name and description should remind readers of Aesop, famous fable teller of Ancient Greece. Of course, when Teppic gets to speak to the philosophers they find the loss of Djelibeybi to be worrying primarily because there is no longer a buffer state between them and their old enemy Tsort, and that means they must go to war.
The Tsortean War should remind readers of the storied Trojan War of Greek myth. In the original story Paris, the Prince of Troy, elopes with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the King of Mycenae. One of the most enduring elements of the story is the Trojan Horse, a wooden horse that the Greeks constructed and filled with soldiers in order to get past the Trojan defenses. In Pyramids, Copolymer (supposedly the greatest storyteller in all of history) tells a similar, if rather confused story. He mixes up names, order of events, and major plot elements, so he is continually going back and forth and changing things as his memory fades in and out. He first mentions Elenor (whose name sounds similar to Helen) but through most of the story he is convinced that the Ephebians took her from the Tsorteans, and not the other way around as in the original tale. Eventually he corrects himself to say that the Tsorteans took her. He also mentions what we might call the Tsortean Horse, but during his narrative it is mentioned as a wooden cow, chicken and pig. According to him, the wooden animal was a ploy by the Tsorteans and, instead of being fooled by it, the Ephebians set it on fire. Since Copolymer mixed up his alliances earlier, it could be that the Ephebians were the one that tried the horse ploy (as their real-world counterparts did). Either way, burning the horse is a very different reaction to the circumstances than is in the myth. Another reference to the Trojan War is found in Elenor’s description as having "the face that launched a thousand camels" (231). This is a reference to the familiar line "face that launched a thousand ships," which originally came from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in a line referencing Helen of Troy. The change to camels makes sense given the desert environment of the story.
Ephebian gods do not come up in Copolymer’s account of the Tsortean War, though they figure heavily into the Greek myth. Teppic, however, does mention one of the attributes of the Ephebian gods: that they often turned into animals to seduce women; he mentions that one even turned into a golden shower (232). There are many examples of Zeus turning into animals in order to win over women, such as when he turned into a bull to seduce Europa and the golden shower is a direct reference to how he seduced the imprisoned Danae.
Eventually Teppic encounters a version of another Greek tale: that of the Sphinx. Even though Pyramids deals primarily with Egyptian mythology, it is interesting to note that the Sphinx that appears is very clearly a Greek sphinx and not an Egyptian one. It is described as having the body of a lion, the bosom of a woman, and the wings of an eagle—the fact that it is female and has wings sets it apart from the male, wingless sphinx of Egypt. In fact, Pyramids attributes the sphinx’s bad temper to its confusing mix of body parts. The sphinx asks Teppic the same riddle that was asked of Oedipus in the original legend: "what goes on four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening?" Unlike Oedipus, Teppic does not know the answer. When the Sphinx reveals that it is man, Teppic objects. He thinks "one day" is rather misleading even if it is metaphorical for a lifetime. He also finds the metaphor inconsistent. If the average life expectancy is 70 years then they’d be 35 at noon, and walking on two legs long before then. At 6 pm they’d only be 52 and probably would not need a walking stick. By distracting the sphinx into rewriting its riddle, the sphinx ends up forgetting it has already told Teppic the answer and asks him again—with Teppic knowing the right answer this time and able to get past the sphinx and back into his country.
Outside the Old Kingdom, the battle lines are being drawn between the Ephebian ranks and the Tsorteans. They even manage a reference to a completely different battle with a sergeant beginning to say the line “Go tell the Ephebians…” (283) which is a reference to the opening verses of an epigram to the Spartans who died at the Battle of Thermopylae. Most of all, the Trojan horse motif is exploited to the nth degree. Both the Ephebians and Tsorteans begin building horses with soldiers inside and both think that the other side has got to be out of their minds to think they’d fall for something like that. Fortunately violence is avoided as Teppic’s efforts pay off and Djelibeybi reappears.
The next book on the list, Small Gods, also contains a side-trip to Ephebe. During this trip our main character Brutha sees and hears of many of the Ephebian gods. He sees a statue of Tuvelpit the God of Wine, who fulfills at least the alcohol-related purpose of Dionysus (254). It’s interesting to note that in later Discworld books, Tuvelpit will be referred to as Bibulous which is a word that means a liking for alcohol, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. Both the Ephebian goddess of love (Astoria) and the goddess of negotiable affection (Petulia) may refer to Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and of the practice of temple prostitution associated with her. More Ephebian gods are introduced when some of the same philosophers we met in Pyramids start questioning the existence of the gods—a practice which happened in antiquity. Xenophanes, for example, found the bad morals of the Greek gods to be reason not to worship or believe in them. On the Disc, however, this questioning angers the gods and they make an appearance to complain. Fedecks, the messenger of the gods, sends an arrow into the bar. Not only is "Fedecks" a clever play on the company FedEx, but he is a reference to the Greek god Hermes, who was a messenger to Zeus. Another god who appears is Patina, goddess of wisdom, whose name and realm of concern is similar to the Greek goddess Athena. Unlike Athena, whose emblem is an owl, Patina carries around a penguin (not thought to be an especially wise animal). This is all thought to be because of an unskilled sculptor who carved Patina with something that looked more like a penguin, which changed the course of belief about the goddess—and on the Disc gods are shaped in reality by people’s beliefs.
The Last Hero an illustrated Discworld novel, does not contain a side trip to Ephebe, but takes the fight directly to the gods, so to speak. Cohen the Barbarian, the aged last hero of Discworld, leads his silver horde on a journey to the top of Cori Celesti and to Dunmanifestin, the Olympus-like abode of the gods. His intent? To return what the first hero stole from the gods—in a violent way. That leads us to the main mythological thread of this story: the tale of Prometheus. In the original tale, the god Prometheus, acting out of the interest of humanity, stole fire from Zeus and was punished for it by being chained to a rock and being forced to endure an eagle pecking out his liver every day—but being immortal was unable to die and thus was tortured continuously until his faraway release. In the Discworld version, the role of Prometheus is played by Fingers Mazda, who stole fire from the gods and received a similar punishment. In fact, one of the illustrations in the book is a copy of the scene on a Spartan black figure cup from the sixth century BC that famously shows Prometheus’ punishment. The Discworld version features the figures of Blind Io and Fingers Mazda. The Discworld version of the story also has it that Fingers Mazda was originally mortal unlike the main Prometheus tale, but like his mention in Heracles labors when Chiron passed his immortality on to him. In the Discworld version, the immortality came as a part of his punishment for stealing fire from the gods, along with the aforementioned being chained up and having an eagle peck out his liver every day. Cohen, unfamiliar with this aspect of the story, is surprised when the minstrel tells him this and doesn’t understand how an eagle could peck out his liver every day. When the minstrel responds that it grew back every day, the elderly Cohen responds that he wishes his kidneys could do that.
In the original Greek tale, Heracles slew the eagle that tormented Prometheus and set the god free. In the Discworld account, another hero, namely Cohen, is the one to release Mazda. Instead of slaying the eagle, though, the silver horde all take turns shaking Mazda's hand and then leave him with a sword. Mazda then hears the approach of the eagle and is given more personal revenge against his tormenter than in the original Greek account.
The main plotline of Wintersmith is similar to the story of Demeter, Persephone and Hades in that it tells the story of the seasons in terms of agriculture, gender, relationships, life and death. Unlike the Greek tale, Wintersmith concerns itself with pure elementals of summer and winter instead of the goddess of the harvest and the god of the dead. In Wintersmith, young witch Tiffany Aching accidentally intrudes upon the dance of the seasons and in the mix up the Wintersmith (Discworld god of winter) mistakes Tiffany for the Summer Lady (Discworld goddess of summer) and Tiffany takes on many of the Summer Lady’s powers, leaving the goddess herself in a weakened condition. The gendering of the seasons is very consistent with the Greek tale. Both Demeter, as goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone are female figures aligned with summer. This is likely due to the fact that female figures are easy to identify with bounty and fertility because they give birth to the next generation. While Hades is not the god of winter as the Wintersmith is, it is because of Hades in a sense keeping spring underground that winter happens—and both figures are male. In Wintersmith the result of this mix up is as follows 1. The Wintersmith falls in love with Tiffany (a figure of summer brazenly about in the midst of his winter) 2. Tiffany must bring spring in the Summer Lady’s place or it won’t come.
One of the gifts Tiffany is given to bring spring is the horn of plenty, or cornucopia, which contains all the bounty of the coming spring. In this story the characters read that Blind Io created the cornucopia from the horn of a magical goat called Almeg. This parallels the original Greek account of Zeus creating the cornucopia from the horn of Amaltheia, the she-goat that nursed and raised him.
As the story presses on, Roland (Tiffany’s friend) must save the real Summer Lady from the underworld. If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re not the only one. When the Nac Mac Feegle (Tiffany’s fairy friends) tell Roland that he must do this, he says that it sounds like Orpheo rescuing Euniphon from the Underworld—a myth he attributes to Ephebe and describes as a love story that’s really about the return of summer. This is a reference to the story of Orpheus journeying to the Underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice. The references to Greek myth pile on when Roland goes to the actual underworld and he gives his fare to the ferryman to cross the river. Though it’s not explicit, it’s fairly easy to guess that this figure is Charon. Roland gives him his legendary fare, but unfortunately does not think far enough ahead to bring fare for a return trip. As if all the underworld references weren’t enough, one of the Nac Mac Feegles comments about them being in "the styx"—a play on "the sticks," a rural setting, and of course the famous river that runs through the underworld. In a final reference to the story of Orpheus, the Feegles advise Roland not to look back when he leaves the underworld—saying that it’s traditional. That tradition came from Hades forbidding Orpheus from looking back until he returned home—unfortunately he did look back and lost his wife yet again.
In all these stories the mythical references play a significant role in the story. Oftentimes the setting is the subject of a change or reversal, or simply a joke in order to inject some sanity into bizarre mythical situations. Oftentimes the references give a reader familiar with them a sense of scale for the activity going on in the story. And even more often the mythical references are there because of a basic tenet of the Discworld series: stories are important. It sounds simple to say it, but on the Disc, it’s more than that. Stories are said to shape people much more than people shape them—for example, Tiffany walked into the story of the seasons and was drawn into a role that wasn’t hers, but that she had to play. Since stories, especially basic ones that tend to crop up frequently in literature, are so important, it makes sense to have references to enduring myths that have impacted writers for hundreds of years. The mix and match of different mythical elements (even from different cultures) into a cohesive storyline is really astounding and something I appreciate having now researched the books and the mythology that they spring from. Working the many (too many, in fact, to all fit in this paper) references to Greek mythology into these stories must have taken a great deal of research and skill and is a credit not only to Terry Pratchett, but to these mythic accounts that can still be explored, subverted and inverted in different ways even after all this time.
Powell, BB 2009, Classical Myth, 6th edition, Person Education, Inc, New York, New York.
Pratchett, T 1983, The Color of Magic, HarperTorch, United States of America.
Pratchett, T 1989, Pyramids, HarperTorch, United States of America.
Pratchett, T 1992, Small Gods, HarperTorch, United States of America.
Pratchett, T 2001, The Last Hero, EOS, New York, New York.