10.07.2009

Lies my Greek mythology book told me

I have this idea that at some point I'll start blogging some of the excellent sci-fi novels I've been reading for my summer (OK, now well into fall) self-assignment, but first, I want to talk about a book I recently took time out to reread. It's a book I adored as a child.

(Have you ever done that? It's kind of amazing, isn't it - how much books can change between your decades-old remembrance and your adult rereading. I can't wait until one of these tiny late-Gen Y-ers goes back and reads the Harry Potter series a decade later.)

Anyway, the book I just finished reading is D'Aualaires' Book of Greek Myths, and it basically forms the foundation for everything I know about Greek mythology. It contains a huge variety of myths, all gorgeously illustrated.


(I remember trying to sketch the illustrations from the book myself and producing a fair imitation of Artemis. The book, incidentally, was passed to me and my sister by our mother; we later came across an old sketch pad of hers that included an excellent rendition of Helen of Troy.)

It is hard to overstate how much this lovely book shaped my young mind. Years ago, the original book was flung across a room by my sister, which tore it apart; recently, hearing how much I had loved it, she bought me another copy - so I got to read it again.

And since it's a book intended for children, there are parts that are really, really funny now. The story of the Minotaur is probably my favorite example:

But Queen Pasiphaƫ was so taken by the beauty of the bull that she persuaded the king to let it live. She admired the bull so much that she ordered Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow, so she could hide inside it and enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range.

And the illustration is of Pasiphaƫ sitting inside the wooden cow, peeking over the top of it and just looking at the nice bull. Hello, nice bull! How are you? And then, it's so weird how Poseidon is all mad and makes her miraculously pregnant with the half-man-half-bull monster somehow!

Also, this hand-waving of Zeus and his many affairs is pretty funny:

Zeus loved Hera dearly, but he was also fond of rocky Greece. He often sneaked down to earth in disguise to marry mortal girls. The more wives he had, the more children he would have, and all the better for Greece! All his children would inherit some of his greatness and become great heroes and rulers.

AWESOME. Fellas, definitely try this line (do not try this line) the next time your lady catches you stepping out on her. "I love you, sweetie, I do - but if we ever want this nation to prosper, it simply must be populated with my offspring!"

But the book is still a fantastic read. Here are a few more observations from this time around:

- My favorite story is still that of Melampus, the hero who could talk to animals. He gets his power in repayment for a good deed, and unlike so many Greek heroes, he never experiences that whole hubris/fall from grace thing. (He totally overcharges a king for saving his daughters from madness, though. Wikipedia suggests the women were dangerous, but the D'Aualaires describe them as more embarrassing than anything else; all they do in the book is run around mooing and shouting, "We are cows! We are cows!" So I guess we could chalk that up to Melampus taking advantage of the king's pride.)

- My other favorite story as a kid, the tale of Selene and Endymion, is just creepy now. If it happened today, Endymion would write a tell-all book, Roofied by the Moon.

- People remember Heracles' immense strength, but I had forgotten how clever he is. Over the course of his 12 labors, he had to figure out how to kill any number of strange beasts that revived in unusual ways, he figured out how to use water power to do one of his tasks for him, he understood the implications of capturing one of Artemis' sacred hinds and never loses patience while pursuing the creature, and he tricks a Titan. He basically never screws up - all the trouble in his life comes from jealous interlopers.

- The story of Jason and the Argonauts is like the Real World/Road Rules All-Star Reunion Challenge of Greek myths. Everyone is there. Sure, Heracles is there! Two winged children of the wind, why not? Oh, and Orpheus is there too! ... I know I said he was torn apart by Menaeds, but that was later on!


Anyway, if you would like a beautifully illustrated, squeaky-clean retelling of a ton of Greek myths, this is your book. I'm so happy I have a copy again - thank you, Katie!

(All images come from this site.)

1 comment:

gerard said...

No, no, it's not: "I love you, sweetie, I do - but if we ever want this nation to prosper, it simply must be populated with my offspring!"

But rather, it's: "I am the earthly form of Zeus. You and all other women will help me populate the world with my offspring, for your own good. Starting with that woman at the end of the bar."

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