I love reading about the ancient world. It shows you that there is nothing new under the sun. In the most ancient literary work that we know of, the Epic of Gilgamesh, this guy says to Gilgamesh, “Don’t go searching for immortality. Take delight in good food and wine and the embrace of your wife and the child who holds your hand.” No one, in four thousand years, has come up with better advice than this.
If you stick to what we actually know through archaeology and written sources, the picture is pretty fuzzy, compared to the picture we get from a literary source like Gilgamesh or Homer — not Homer Simpson, the blind Greek guy.
That’s why when someone lights into the unknown territory of the ancient world with a barrelful of imagination, I’m ready to cut him all the slack he wants and just take off and enjoy the ride. Can you count all the mixed metaphors in that last sentence? They could apply only to the imaginative Finn Mika Waltari who wrote The Egyptian, The Roman, The Etruscan and numerous other works.
Besides Homer, and the author of Gilgamesh, and Thucydides, and Xenophon and people like that, no one has done more to stimulate my imagination about the ancient world than Mika Waltari. If you see one of his books, grab it and read it.
In The Egyptian, a man is so passionately in love with a courtesan that he allows his parents to be disinterred and sells their burial plots. In The Roman, a guy gets married to a woman whose tastes are so kinky he doesn’t even want to know about them. These are two great books I read a long time ago.
But the book I just reread last summer, The Etruscan, is really a corker. From it I learned about the unseen gods who rule the gods as the gods rule men. That’s a big plus right there. Isn’t that something you’d like to know about? Don’t you get tired of sacrificing to all these gods — a black calf here and a white bull there — and wish you could just take care of all this automatically through the unseen gods?
Mika Waltari gives the best imaginative recreation of Etruscan religion that I have ever seen; in fact it’s the only one that I have ever seen. It’s just one heck of a book and I couldn’t even start to sum it all up here.
My only disappointment is this: We spend the whole book finding out who the narrator’s father is, and he turns out to be the only Etruscan that every English schoolboy knows by name.
And who is that? American readers may ask. Well in Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome,” we read “Lars Porsena, by the nine gods he swore, that the great house of Tarquin should suffer harm no more…” That’s in “Horatius at the Bridge,” the most famous lay of all.
So when Lars Porsena turns out to be the main character’s father, I was a little disappointed, but it by no means diminished the enjoyment I derived from the book. As I said, I can’t possibly summarize it. This book is a corker even if you have no interest whatever in the ancient world.
Mika Waltari, The Etruscan