LETTERS TO POSEIDON by Cees Nooteboom – are the ancient gods still important today?

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Were you jealous of the gods that came after you? Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Where are the ancient gods today?

Glorious columns of ancient temples now covered in ivy. The gods that once walked the Earth now retreated inside the pages of the books written by people who knew them or people who try to remember them. An era of the gods that were human is long over, but is it forgotten? We still obsess over them. They are the ”celebrities” of the world’s mythologies. The Greek pantheon is a well of inspiration that never exhausts.

Still, their existence is limited to time and space. Their time knew the ends of the world, but we recognized them as the borders we eventually crossed. Really, how was it when the old world witnessed the beginning of the new one? When the ships started cutting through the waves Poseidon guided so neatly, and sometimes violently. Nooteboom (and Dante) pictures Poseidon sitting in the depths of the sea and looking up to see the ships and being surprised, and I can’t ignore how small that makes Poseidon, trapped beneath the waves.

Nooteboom’s Letters to Poseidon

Nooteboom tries to revive the ancient times addressing the god of the sea – Poseidon, not Neptune! – and telling him about the world he left behind. Letters to Poseidon is a collection of 23 letters and observations in which the author draws inspiration from all around him. Random objects have the power to transfer him to different times and places.

He speaks to Poseidon as a long-forgotten acquaintance – I wouldn’t dare say friends – to whom he offers little updates about everyday life. Nooteeboom lets motifs like agave, paintings, the beach, or old memories guide him, and writes down his thoughts about them in a form of short, up to three pages long notes.

Addressing Poseidon, he constantly goes back to the question of the passing of time, of polarity between human mortality and gods’ immortality. (I’m saying ”gods” and not ”divine”, because, as we conclude from Nooteboom’s notes and from today’s status of the Greek gods, immortality was a broken promise. Are they dead? Do they live in our minds, imagination, and culture? In what capacity?) Nooteboom debates on what is better – mortality or the infinite – and who should be more envious.

The other letters, those not addressing Poseidon, those that are entirely human and focus on more trivial questions, are mostly in this book of the less triumph. Sort of like the pen was calling to divine inspiration, and the mundane material couldn’t keep up with the tone.

But, let’s go back to Poseidon. These letters inspire thoughts of the passing of time. We witness and are victims of time playing games with our core values, our knowledge, and what we hold the most sacred – life.

Inspired by Letters to Poseidon

Reading this book, I imagined the conversation between Hera and Hades. They were visiting their temples. The marble is cracked, and there are weeds around the columns and lingering at the bottom of the statues – their reflections in stone. The cracks are spreading like rivers alongside the walls and taking more and more space with time.

The prayers, the incense, and the sacrifices gave way to silence. Hera is surprised. Nobody’s come for centuries. Nobody called on her name. Hades, on the other hand, is indifferent to the state of the buildings. Nobody raised him any temples, and eventually, they all came to him.

I don’t know why I chose these two gods, but I can’t miss the destiny they all had. The mythology that was once everything, the very truth of our existence, the beginning, is now a means to create art and pull from that well some new and transformed stories.

That’s why I enjoyed this book, at least in that part – the letters addressed to a past that shaped the Western civilization, that drowned all others, and eventually got drowned itself, somewhere beneath the waves and the cold marble. I still go back to those stories, searching for I don’t know what, but still attracted to it.

This review was more of an inspiration that comes from mythology. I hope this post was fun for you and that it motivates you to pick this book up sometime. What is your stand on mythology, its importance, and its influence? If you could send a letter to the ancient gods, what would you say? Let me know in the comments 😀

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