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.