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Bunky’s Pantheon

The study of alcoholism does not just reward but practically demands an interdisciplinary approach, a capacity to navigate and synthesize medical science, psychology, sociology, and more. In this way we might say it takes after its father: E. M. Jellinek, a polyglot and polymath who delighted in jumping between registers of meaning––a fascination apparent in not just his scholarly work but also his private amusements. A recently uncovered typewritten and hand-corrected short document, titled “Who Was Who in Greek Mythology,” shows off his classical learning, linguistic dexterity, and inventive sense of humor, and offers some fascinating traces of his academic pursuits and personal life.

Jellinek, or “Bunky,” entertains himself throughout this biographical-dictionary-cum-gossip-column by retelling classical legends in contemporary language. Aphrodite is a “beautiful doll,” while Athena lacked “sex appeal”; Hermes had “a terrific racket” as god of commerce and of thieves, while Zeus was “chief of all the Olympic bigshots.” He has fun modernizing myth: Chiron founds a “prep school” for heroes; the Argonauts and their descendants form a snobbish “Mayflower Society”-esque club; Orpheus becomes an ancient Elvis, “first of the crooners,” and is “torn to pieces by Thracian teenagers” caught up “in a wild scramble for autographs.” Jellinek seems to enjoy wordplay above all. In his neoclassical neologisms Medea becomes “Jason’s argonaughty mistress,” while Poseidon is “tridentified as a sea god.” In a memorable flourish of tautology, Hera is described as “a handsome dame of Junoesque stature.” This philological fun extends to some inventive false etymologies. Helios, Jellinek writes with mock authority, “was probably of Basque origin, as Halieia, the name of his chief festival, seems to be the Greek mispronunciation of the Basque jai alai.” The apex of this humor is probably the entry for the pastoral deity Pan, who “used to be a god (son of Hermes) but, because of his vulgar habits, was demoted to the rank of a prefix (e.g., in pantheon and pancake).” Jellinek seems to have found his satyr-satire endlessly funny; manuscript revisions add “pants” and [pan]-“demonium” to the list of derivatives.

text blockJellinek’s jokes also show off his professional knowledge. He includes “Erysipelas” in his list, which “would have made a wonderful name for a mythological figure” but unfortunately “was preempted by the Committee for the International List of Diseases and Causes of Deaths.” He has particular fun with the namesakes of Freudian concepts. Narcissus is described as “an entirely insignificant figure in Greek mythology who rose to sudden fame in the twentieth century, A.D., when a high-power press agent sneaked him into psychoanalytic terminology,” and likewise Psyche “plays a greater role in the modern U.S.A. than she did in ancient Greece.” A manuscript note to the latter entry claims that “she is worshipped in secret temples by psychiatrists and psychologists, but none of them will admit ever having met her”––perhaps a playful jab at the cultish mysticism of some strains of Freudian orthodoxy. In a parallel vein of humor, Jellinek delights in diagnosing classical figures with modern disorders. Thus Persephone “developed involutional melancholia” in the underworld, while for Dionysus “the most appropriate psychiatric label seems to be ‘manic-depressive.’” Jellinek’s field of expertise shows up in a couple of these creative anachronisms. “Hera hated Dionysus so intensely that out of opposition to him she founded the antialcoholic movement,” he writes, “recently and much belatedly adopted by M. Mendes-France.” Interestingly, he crossed out the suffix “-ic” in manuscript. Perhaps Jellinek was wary of implying that true alcoholism could be said to exist in antiquity; after all, in The Disease Concept of Alcoholism he writes that habitual individual drinking purely for the purposes of intoxication (“utilitarian” as opposed to “ritual drinking”) “is made possible only through advances in the techniques of brewing beers and fermentation of wines, preservation and storage of the beverages, distribution facilities (the tavern, transportation, etc.), and through lower cost of the commodity” (p. 151). He has no qualms about the potential historical pitfall, however, when it’s unmistakably marked as part of the joke, like the “Alcoolicoi Anonymoi” meetings that Helios must attend in order to regain his solar chariot license.

The last entry of the piece, for Zeus, comes to seem almost like a mythic autobiography. Jellinek’s Zeus is a jovial trickster and true chameleon who “could impersonate any person and inanimate any animal,” not unlike the man himself. The two also share a knack for reinvention. According to Jellinek, “Jupiter frequently issued declarations to the effect that he was not identical with Zeus and he repudiated paternity claims and damage suits for alienation of affection which Zeus wanted to palm off on him.” Is the move from Greek to Roman mythology a genuine change of identity, or a clever ruse to shake off familial and financial obligations? Much like Jellinek’s own convoluted migrations and rechristenings, it’s hard to say for sure.

–Nick Allred


  • Jellinek, M. (1960). The disease concept of alcoholism. New Haven, CT: Hillhouse Press.
  • Jellinek, E. M. (n. d.). Who was who in Greek mythology [unpublished]. Center of Alcohol Studies Archives, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Piscataway.

Published in the Jellinek Special Anniversary issue of the CAS Information Services Newsletter in 2015.