Gods and Gastropods

It is 1968. I am eleven years old. In the last few months, I have begun reorganizing my late childhood, repurposing the room where I sleep, away from the toys (an electric train, Revell models of the Apollo and Gemini capsules, a set of plastic green soldiers) and towards certain projects that, increasingly, obsess me.

My parents moved me into the room on my fifth birthday. In the last year, laying awake in the near-dark, I have come to think of this room and the whole house as magical – not in the sense of a wardrobe opening out into allegory, but in the sense of holding secrets from before my lifetime.

The room seems like one of the works of this magic. It is, for starters, an odd shape, three times deeper than wide, opening out to the left at its nether end into a 4’x4’ vestibule. The double-hung windows overlook a side garden, a low brick wall, and then, from their vantage on a hill hugging the line between Echo Park and Silverlake, a view of the squat downtown L.A. skyline framed by City Hall to the left, and toward the right, by the Richfield Building, its iron mesh tower recalling an oil derrick. Even without the moon, the downtown lights softly illuminated my ceiling and the crack that traversed the plaster in a stepwise fashion as if there was an original roofline encased within.

About halfway into the room, a seam between the floorboards gapes open a quarter inch, as if one half of the room was angling down from the other half.  Obviously, it was not part of the original house. I was ten when I wondered: why is half the room sinking?  I took the stairs halfway down to the 10×10 basement and examined the crawlspace under the rest of the house to figure out how my room fit into the whole plan.

Everywhere else, the structures underside was propped up on cripplewall and creosote-soaked 4x4s. Under my room, though, was a three-foot thick concrete slab surmounted by joists and then by underboards. Originally, it must have been a courtyard patio. But when was it closed off? And why? For years, falling asleep, I savored the idea that someone had lived here before, someone who walled off this room, bolted joists to concrete, and covered the whole thing over with oak flooring. I tried to imagine the patio before the conversion, in the 1930s or 40s, looking out into the sun on the home’s south side, scented with the roses by day and the night-blooming jasmine in the summer twilights. This is how I fell asleep.

Now, in 1968, against the room’s longest wall, the one extending from the front all the way back to the windows, are two seven foot tables.

The first table is of a kind that is still stacked up in church social hall storage closets: a heavy solid wood top, with hinged steel legs below. Theoretically, it can be picked up and moved. In practice, it is as heavy as the dark cherry veneered television cabinet in the living room. The ’71 earthquake, which knocked the house partially off its foundation, did not visibly budge either the table or the television.

On this August day in 1968, I am sitting at this table, which I’ve cleared of every other project.  I roll out white butcher paper, cut to a three-foot length, about three-quarters of my own height. I tape the corners to the tabletop. I measure along the top to the center of that length and I write:


and below that


Using a ruler and a T-square, I draw a short vertical line and a much longer horizontal line. Under that horizontal line, I write two name: Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night).  They are the children of Chaos. Then another vertical and another horizontal for the children of Night alone: Care, Destiny, Deceit, Tenderness, Death, Dreams, Sleep, Sarcasm, Pain, Vengeance, Strife and Old Age. Then the children of Night and Darkness together: Aether (Brightness) and Hemere (Day).  Another two lines and more names follow.

I continue like this until I’ve done through the twelve Titans and their progeny.

While I’m writing, I’m glancing at three books I’ve propped up on wire bookstands. One is Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, in two blue Pelican paperbacks which my parents bought for me at Pickwick Books the week before. The second is H. J. Rose’s, Handbook of Greek Mythology, which I may have picked up at the same time. The third a library copy of Hesiod’s Theogeny.

Of these, I like Graves the best. For Graves, the oldest myths are translucent; through them we can glimpse the spiritual light cast from Europe’s Neolithic ignition.  Pulling together ancient reports of indigenous pre-Greek populations, Graves calls these Neolithic layers Pelasgian. Anticipating Marija Gimbutas’s reconstruction of preclassical “Old Europe” as a pacific matriarchal culture, he perceives in this older cultural matrix trios of creative and destructive goddesses who appear always as maiden, mother and crone. Though the patriarchal sky gods of the Indo-European invaders supplant these goddesses, they cannot  wholly eradicate them: even the gods must bow to the Fates. It is a theme Graves pursued with particular ambition in The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, and which informed his Greek Myths.

I accept without question this idea of ancient matriarchal power. It is not the gender reversal that fascinates me, and I know absolutely nothing about the feminist claims this theory serves. What attracts me is the idea that, beneath History, exists a nearly forgotten history, not  undone by conspiracy or design, but by the gradual accumulation of sediment and time. It’s like one of the “Lost Civilizations” I read about in that book by L. Sprague DeCamp. It is this same eerie sense of forgotten time that has me imagining in my ordinary room, with its large closet and narrow vestibule and double-hung windows and iron heating grate and uneven floorboards, some meaning secreted away from me when between wakefulness and sleep.

For two weeks I transpose names and relationships from books to butcher paper. Now I have two charts, one for the Gods and the other for the Heroes.  A month or two later, dissatisfied with how cramped the hundreds of names have become – and finding still more sources – I copy the two charts onto seven longer ribbons of butcher paper: one for the generations from Chaos to the Titans, and others for the descendents of Oceanus (chart II), the Aeolids (chart III, descendants of Deucalion and Pyrrha), Poseidon (chart IV), and Apollo (chart V).

Of course, the sources, both original and recent, are contradictory. It does not occur to me that “Greek Mythology” – the canonical collection of stories I’ve read in Bullfinch, Fraser, Graves, Rose, and Durant – is little more than ancient pastiche assembled from local rituals, village religion, and family folktales. Greek and Roman literati treated these disparate materials as if the entire corpus were one coherent story.

I imagine myself a real scholar, like Graves. I compare my sources and decide which seems “true.” When I make that decision, I add another ruled line to my family history of the gods. Every god, demi-god and hero has a place in the scheme.  I draw the gods too, copying Artemis from a guide to the Huntington Library and Pan from the Larousse Encyclopedia of World Mythology.

Abutting the first table is another. My dad made this one for his first L.A. apartment. It has four legs, each a 33” iron pipe. Each pipe screws into a slip flange which, in turn, is secured to one of the four corners of a hollow-core door. Dad filled the bore hole with a pine plug, and then stained and varnished the whole tabletop. Dad’s table can be moved, but it’s even heavier than the folding table.

The surface of this homemade table is reserved my other summer project. I have divided it into a grid with lengths of string, the gridlines created with string whose ends I’ve taped to the table edges. Within each string square is a mollusk shell, found just east of San Pedro at the tidepools of Cabrillo Beach.

I don’t care about studying molluscs any more than I really care about ancient Greek religious rituals. But, just as I love the way names look in a lineage chart, I love the way the shells look on the table’s rectangular surface.

I do this in imitation of a collection I’ve seen on high tables encased in glass at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. The rest of the museum’s collection – the taxidermist’s buffaloes, the articulated dinosaur skeletons, the tar-stained ground sloths – I can’t recreate that in my room. But the bivalves and univalves of the musuem’s shell collection: this I can do myself.

The symmetries on both tables rhyme with the regularities of the shells themselves: the repeating whorl of a turban shell, the arrayed scars left behind by the sea urchin’s spines.

I want everyone to see. I am like that: the child who desperately wants adult approval but who knows no conventional way to get it. Parents, uncles and aunts, family friends, and cousins come to town from Chicago for a summer vacation. That must have been a lot of work, Tommy. I can hear – or think I can hear – the condescension in their voices, which makes me want their approval all the more. Eventually, though, it gets uncomfortable.

Spending time with gods and gastropods, I learn to like the solitude of grids, collections and classifications.

There are 2 comments

  1. Deirdre Gainor

    I love the contemplation of that vital moment in your childhood as you began to look out and look in! What an interesting room to grow up in.


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