The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

This summer, I am going to be reading a few classics of Greek and Roman literature. (I often devote chunks of my summer to reading Massive Classics I Haven’t Read, like the summer I spent reading 3500 pages of The Story of the Stone — man, that was great.) When Teresa and I did the Ancient Greek Classics Circuit, and read Aeschylus’s Oresteia, I felt as if I were walking in on the set of a convoluted soap opera. Who’s married to whom? Who’s his grandfather, now? Why is this family cursed, again? So this time, I decided to begin very simply, by refreshing my memory on the myths themselves, that poets and playwrights seem to take for granted that all their readers and listeners would know.

The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was published in 1961, intended as a compendium of Greek mythology for children. It’s elaborately illustrated (there’s one beautiful, full-page portrait of Helen of Troy) and matter-of-factly told, from the very beginnings of creation to the end of the gods’ days. I made notes as I read, jotting things down I thought I might like to remember later. I read, “Hermes, merriest of the Olympians, was the god of shepherds, travelers, merchants, thieves, and all others who lived by their wits,” and wrote, “Hermes = god of day traders.” When I read about Nemesis, goddess of just repayment, I wondered why we still use her name, and not that of her sisters, the three who spin, measure and cut the thread of life.

While I was, of course, familiar with most of the stories, there were also a lot I didn’t know. Did you know that Dionysus was once captured by pirates who thought he was an earthly prince, and when he revealed himself to them (their ship breaking out in grape vines), he was merciful to them, and turned them into dolphins, and that’s why dolphins are the most human animals in the sea? Did you know that there was a man made of bronze named Talos (the d’Aulaires call him a “robot”) who protected Crete? Are you thinking “extraterrestrial technology,” because I am?

Some of the stories are — necessarily, in my opinion — bowdlerized a bit for children’s consumption. If you’re going to write about Pasiphae and the bull, it’s probably best that you write about her getting into a hollow wooden cow “so that she could enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range,” and then not go into great detail about what that involved. I will say, however, that the d’Aulaires’s straightforward style make most gruesome matters fairly easy to read. “His son, Pelops, was his greatest treasure, and, wanting to give the gods his best, Tantalus decided to sacrifice him. He made a stew of him and set the dish before the gods.” Or perhaps this:  “In despair Queen Jocasta went to her room and took her own life and Oedipus in horror put out his own eyes and left Thebes, a broken old man.” (Now that story is a case for open adoption if ever there was one.)

This was a wonderful, tiny, ABC refresher course for me on Greek myths — the beautiful, the ugly, and the outright bizarre — and if you’ve wondered where to find a real starting place for mythology for kids you know who like the Lightning Thief series, I can’t do better than recommend this.

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15 Responses to The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

  1. Deb says:

    We found this exact book at a Friends of the Library sale a few years back. My youngest children devoured it cover-to-cover. Now they ace every myths & legends category on “Jeopardy.”

    • Jenny says:

      When I was little, I had some book about mythology that I, equally, devoured but haven’t been able to remember the title of. I wish I could! But this was wonderful.

  2. Bellezza says:

    I have this in my classroom, and my third graders could not get enough of it. They loved it! We were constantly looking for it because someone had it in his/her desk.

    It was also a great help when I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan aloud to them; they could look up lots of the gods and goddesses in the D’Aulaire’s book.

    • Jenny says:

      I think this would be so useful for that sort of thing. I wish there were an equivalent fairy tale book, for all the fairy tale retellings that come out all the time.

  3. Karen K. says:

    I loved this book as a child and read it over and over. If we’d had better bookstores or the internet I would have had my own copy. As soon as my children were old enough I bought them a copy. My youngest daughter is a huge fan of Greek mythology since the Lightning Thief series came out (obsessed is probably a better word). She’s can’t get enough of Greek mythology so this has been invaluable.

    • Jenny says:

      I loved reading mythology when I was a kid, too! Are the Lightning Thief books any good? I haven’t tried them, myself.

  4. Lisa says:

    This was my introduction to Greek mythology as a kid, and I checked it out repeatedly from the library. I finally bought my own copy last year, partly because I was reading the Lightning Thief books (which are a fun read imo), and partly just from pure nostalgia. I have Edith Hamilton’s book as well, but I refer to the D’Aulaires’ book more often now. I got their book of Norse myths at the same time and learned a lot from that.

    • Jenny says:

      We moved when I was 10 years old, and the previous owners of our new house left a book of mythology in the basement. I no longer remember the title (Heroes and Something, maybe?) but I read it over and over.

      Oh, and wait for my review of the book of Norse myths on June 11!

  5. rebeccareid says:

    I agree with everything you say. I LOVE this book. I grew up with it and I’ve always loved Greek mythology probably because of this book. Must get a copy for my own boy to come to love too.

    • Jenny says:

      I love collecting books I loved for my children to read. It’s so much fun to see them react to the stories, especially when they begin choosing and reading them on their own (my daughter is an avid reader!) My only question is when, and how much, to cull once they start to get older. Will they resent my getting rid of “Moo, Baa, Tra la la”? :)

  6. Jenny says:

    This was the Greek mythology book I had when I was a little girl! Do you know they have a Norse one too? I wish I’d had the Norse one as a kid, it would have made me love the Norse myths as much as I love the Greek ones. The D’Aulaire pictures are what I always, always picture when I’m reading about Greek mythology.

    • Jenny says:

      I would have loved a go-to Norse mythology as a kid. I can’t remember how I learned Norse mythology. Perhaps it has always been part of my brain? Unlikely. But Greek myths I do remember. I wish I’d had the D’Aulaires!

  7. michelle says:

    I was just wondering who the story of the stone was by pls?

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, sorry, Michelle, I should have linked! The Story of the Stone is by Cao Xueqin and is an amazing, intricate, fantastic, layered 18th-century Chinese novel. If you check this blog, I wrote a 5-part review of it (if such a short discussion can be called a review.) I loved it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    O my you have to reply at every thinh

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