In praise of Greek myths

There are some advantages to being half-American: growing up with French toast and maple syrup, for example, or listening to the tape of Guys and Dolls in the car; and the possibility that your grandparents may buy you d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

Of course, there are many different books of Greek myths for children, and some very good ones. D’Aulaires’ just happened to be the one I was brought up with. And it happened to be a very good one.

For a start, the book is a pleasing shape and size, which is an important factor in feeling affection for a particular book. The pages are a little larger than A4, probably some exotic American paper size. To a small child it seemed massive. This is definitely a book to pore over on the sofa, or for someone to read to you at bedtime. It is the kind of book that demands time and attention and love.

The other good thing about the size is that it allows room for lots of illustrations, and many of them in bright, bold colours. The d’Aulaires seemed to specialise in rather quirky or playful representations of myth. On the first page we see a picture of Gaia, the earth-goddess. Her eyes are small lakes, her nose a hill, and trees make up her locks of hair. Hovering above her is Uranus, the sky, a divine face formed by a gathering of stars. When Io is transformed into a cow, the poor girl is shown actually trapped within a cow’s body; the evils that Pandora releases from her box have monstrous forms (where “fibs” are smaller, less hideous versions of “lies”); and when Eurydice dies, all living things gather around Orpheus to share his grief: lions, flowers, even weeping trees.

The book starts by introducing you to the twelve Olympian gods, and gives a good sense of their characters and individual attributes. Everyone has their favourite gods, and I was swift to identify mine. You have to respect the messenger god Hermes, who as a baby succeeded in stealing a herd of cows from his brother Apollo, and devised a cunning method for disguising their tracks. He also invented the lyre using a tortoise shell, and had the nerve to lie to his father Zeus about the theft of the cattle. This well-meaning trickster was also a favourite of mine for his attributes. The winged hat and sandals and magic wand were enviable possessions, in my view – much more exciting than Zeus’ thunderbolt, say, or Hephaestus’ axe. As for goddesses, Athena was a clear winner. Intelligent, feisty, and fair, Athena was a good female role model. She too had great attributes: a fine set of armour, and an owl to keep her company. One of the great things about having favourite characters is that you are always pleased to see them whenever they crop up – and in the case of Hermes and Athena I have met them in many guises since throughout my study of classics: frequently in vase-paintings, occasionally in sculpture, and unavoidable in literature. It is something like bumping into old friends.

Once hooked on Greek mythology, it was not a difficult decision to study Greek as a teenager. Of course, what we did in my very first lesson was to practise writing the names of the gods and goddesses in the Greek alphabet. I eventually went on to study classics at university, and particularly enjoyed trying to decipher the mythological images on Greek vases. A good knowledge of Greek mythology is like a key to the ancient world. If you already know who Poseidon and Athena are before reading the Odyssey, for example, you are one step ahead of the game. The dazzling cast of characters with their strange and apparently unpronounceable names is much less confusing with some prior knowledge. The d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths will always be an important book to me. I can’t imagine a more enticing introduction to the world of classics for children than through such a beautiful book of myths.