Next time you re-watch The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 epic masterpiece about an Italian American Mafia family’s inter-generational struggle, don’t be surprised if it ends up looking a little less American and a lot more Greek – ancient Greek, that is.
This Hollywood box-office hit (based on the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo), which stars Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, has its roots in Greek mythology. The Godfather is the saga of a Mafia family’s inter-generational struggle and invokes the same successional myth played out in Greek mythology with Zeus, according to Cora Angier Sowa, who studied classical philology at Harvard University and is the founder of Minerva Systems, an enterprise devoted to examining the continuity of influence of Greek and Roman Classical civilization, and to exploring how ancient insights can be applied to today’s world.
Sowa, who is the author of “Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns”, has conducted extensive research about the ancient myths in modern movies.
Many people are surprised to learn that ancient myth was often at least as violent, if not more so, than the mayhem of our modern fantasies. The Greek god Kronos, for instance, castrated his father with a pruning hook, then swallowed his own children and was later forced to vomit them up. Mythologers today, according to Sowa, define “myth” in a more subtle and discerning way that includes the Corleone family.
The Succession Myth
The basic myth of The Godfather is the Succession Myth, one of mankind’s oldest myths, found in the literature of the Greeks and Babylonians and other ancient peoples. The typical Succession Myth covers three generations – grandfather, father, and son – and chronicles the passage of power from one generation to the next.
Here’s a typical ancient example: Ouranos, the Sky God, was castrated by his son Kronos, who in turn was overthrown by his youngest son Zeus, who became king of the gods. This story, with its Oedipal associations, describes the basic facts of family descent and competition.
According to Sowa, The Godfather’s son, Michael Corleone (much like Zeus), inherits his aging father’s position as head of an organized crime family. He is the youngest of three sons. His older brother, Sonny, is a hot-head who gets himself killed, and Fredo, the second brother, is disqualified by his stupidity, making way for Michael to head the family. The birth of Michael’s son, who is present at his father Don Corleone’s death, supplies the third generation of the Succession myth.
The story of the son who overthrows his father in the Succession Myth generally includes the Hero’s Birth and the Hero’s Consolidation of His Power. These are themes that can be found both in The Godfather and in Homer’s Theogony.
Now let’s look at Zeus. He was born in secret, hidden from the hostile members of the older generation. Zeus’s father Kronos swallowed all of Zeus’ brothers and sisters, and would have swallowed Zeus, too, if he had not been tricked into swallowing a stone wrapped in blankets. And so Zeus grew up fast under the care of the Nymphs and he forced his father to vomit up all his brothers and sisters.
This brings us to the Hero Myth in which the hero kills a monster or performs some extraordinary feat. Zeus destroyed Typhoeus and the Titans. In Michael’s case it was the killing of his first cop. And then, the Hero goes on a journey. Michael flees to Sicily. This is the Journey Theme – a favorite among the Greeks. Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of the greatest journey of all time. In fact, the journey theme is one of death and resurrection – just like in mythology.
Back to the Succession Myth. Sowa asks why would this myth be so popular in the 1970s. Why would a film about the Succession Myth be popular in the 1970’s? Well, for starters, the 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of massive changes, when old ways of looking at things and doing things were being questioned by the younger generation as it tried to reshape the world in its own image. Also, the myth of Uranus, Kronos and Zeus is old but it is still applicable today.
No doubt the succession and the journey theme are very powerful and form a strong mythic foundation of The Godfather.