Autobiography of Red – Geryon Mythology

Red on Maroon

Mark Rothko

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is a verse novel that reimagines the myth of Geryon and Herakles (whom you may know as Hercules). Her poems take place in a modern-ish world, filled with airplanes and volcanoes, bunk beds and cigarettes. In her retelling, we follow Geryon from childhood through young adulthood (by which, I mean maybe his 20s?). After my conversation with Kimberly last week about Inanna, I began digging into the story of Geryon and Herakles, trying to separate the myth from retelling in Autobiography of Red.

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Myth: Geryon is the son of Callirrhoe and Chrysaor, son of Medusa and Poseidon.

Retelling: Geryon has an abusive older brother who shares bunk beds with him and ends up a sportscaster.

Myth: Herakles kills Geryon in order to steal his famous red cattle. This is the tenth labor of Herakles.

Retelling: Herakles doesn’t kill Geryon, but instead breaks his heart. He is his first love.Herakles and Geryon

Unknown Potter, this is Hercules fighting a three-headed Geryon, with a dead Orthrus at Geryon’s feet.

Myth: Geryon had three heads and one body. Or Geryon had one body and three heads. Or Geryon had six hands, six legs, one body, and two wings. He has a beautiful two-headed dog, Orthrus, who is the brother of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the underworld of Hades.

Retelling: Geryon is a red monster boy with wings he hides beneath a jacket. He doesn’t have a dog, but he takes a camera with him everywhere.

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A brief summary of the myth: Hercules is driven mad by Hera, goes crazy, and kills his wife Megara and their six sons. Yes, this Meg:

As penance, an oracle tells Hercules to go on a journey and serve King Eurystheus for ten years. Each year, Hercules is given a seemingly impossible task to complete. After ten years, Eurystheus says Hercules cheated by getting help on two tasks, so Hercules has to work for two more years, thus the famous twelve labors of Hercules. Geryon falls victim to Eurystheus’ seemingly random whims. As such, for his tenth labor, Hercules travels all the way to the island of Erythia just to disturb a gentle Geryon who is minding his own business tending to his cattle. Hercules kills Geryon’s dog, Geryon’s helper, and then when Geryon comes to save his cattle, Hercules kills him too. Hercules then delivers the cattle to Eurystheus who promptly sacrifices at them as an offering to Hera, who drove Hercules mad in the first place. Kind of crazy, right?

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Autobiography of Red is unique, compelling, and turns the myth of Geryon on its head. Here, Herakles is the bad guy, and you’re constantly rooting for Geryon. Anne Carson is absolutely brilliant, mixing science and mythology, metaphors with very real quiet moments. I love books and poems that incorporate scientific facts, and Anne Carson relies heavily on scientific imagery. She explores the idea of perception, how volcanoes are formed, the concept of time, and Quechuan mythology. This is a complex, layered, and very talented book. I’ve been wanting to dive into The Iliad for a very long time, but have been frightened of the form of the verse novel. Having made it through Autobiography of Red, I think I may be ready to tackle a bigger epic. Anne Carson has written a follow-up to this, called Red Doc>. She writes:

Some years ago I wrote a book about a boy named Geryon who was red and had wings and fell in love with Herakles. Recently I began to wonder what happened to them in later life. Red Doc> continues their adventures in a very different style and with changed names.

To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.

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Additional Reading:

Girls from Corona del Mar — Inanna mythology

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe is “an astonishing debut about friendships made in youth” and follows the friendship between childhood girlfriends Mia and Lorrie Ann. Mia, the narrator, and her boyfriend live in Istanbul for the majority of the book while translating the poems, written in cuneiform, of the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Mia is quickly drawn to the goddess (as was Thorpe in real life) and sees points of Inanna’s journey as a parallel to both her friend’s decisions/difficulties as well as her own.

inanna2

I had no prior knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian deities and thought it would be a nice topic for some cursory digging. Inanna is one of the “seven gods who decree” just under the primordial beings and above other gods. She is the queen of heaven, the goddess of love and war; of heaven and earth, and many things in between — of grain, of fertility, of emotions. I came across a description of her that I like, that she is the image of “the feminine beyond the merely maternal.” She has been described as violently aggressive but also compassionate and “great-hearted.”

While she is mentioned in many myths and hymns, a few of the websites I came across break her story down into four main parts. In the first, (Inanna and the Huluppu-Tree), at the beginning of time, when the sky and earth were separating, there was a terrible storm that uprooted a huluppu tree. Inanna rescued it and planted it in her “sacred grove,” where it thrived. However, soon three creatures took the tree for their home: a snake in the roots, a lilitu or female spirit in the trunk, and the Anzu bird in the branches. The warrior Gilgamesh defeated the snake – and the other two fled. He cut the tree down and gave the trunk to Inanna, who wanted to make herself a chair and a bed of the wood. The Huluppu tree is thought to possibly be the World Tree, which connects the heaven, the earth, and the underworld.

In the second, Inanna and the God of Wisdom, Inanna tricks her maternal grandfather Enki, the god of wisdom, into giving her all these great gifts while he is drunk. The gift of woodworking and metalsmith, of creating order in cities as well as of plundering, of grief and joy, and so on. She in turn brings knowledge and culture to the city Uruk, where she was prominently worshiped.

In the third, The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi, Inanna takes the shepherd Dumuzi as her husband. Though she is first resistant to the idea of the marriage, she comes to love him very deeply. “He is the lettuce planted by the water / He is the one my womb loves best.” They start a family together.

Finally, in the fourth and most famous of her poems, The Descent of Inanna, she abandons heaven and earth and all their riches to descend to the Underworld. As a safeguard, she fashions seven items (to represent the seven characteristics of civilization: social structure, stable food, government, religion, writing, culture, technology) to wear on her descent. She further warns her most trusted servant, Ninshubur, to get her father’s help if she should not return. The queen of the underworld is furious when Inanna shows up with her crown, golden hip girdle, her lapis earrings, and royal clothes. She locks the seven gates of the underworld. To pass through each one, Inanna must remove one of her seven items. So she arrives in the throne room of the underworld totally naked. The queen kills Inanna and hangs her corpse from a hook on the wall.

Three days after Inanna’s descent, Ninshubur begs Inanna’s relatives for help. Her father and paternal grandfather refuse. It is finally Enki who agrees to help. He creates two creatures and tasks them with traveling to the underworld, tricking the queen with flattery, and asking for a single gift: Inanna’s corpse. Then, they must sprinkle her body with the food and water of life, and she will rise.

The judges of the underworld, the Annuna, insist that someone must die to take Inanna’s place and send the galla, demons of the underworld, back to earth with her. The galla try to take Ninshubur, but Inanna refuses. Then they try to take her sons, which she also refuses. When Inanna arrives to the city of Uruk, her husband is sitting on the throne and shows no signs of mourning. She lets the galla take him, even though she cries bitterly for him.

Inanna and the Huluppu Tree

The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi

Descent of Inanna

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