My first Greek myths

Over the past year or so, I’ve been drifting back into more active Pagan practice. I didn’t expect this to remind me of when I first got into Wicca, but that’s exactly what’s happening. In one sense, I feel as if I’m beginning, but true to the image of life being a spiral, I’m not in the same place I was twenty-odd years ago. Then…well, then was a whole new world, a world of magic, the Wheel of the Year, a Goddess as well as a God, and all the things that fill the Wicca 101 books. Now is that same world, so to speak, but less generic. I’m trying to figure out what parts of Paganism really speak to me as opposed to being a great theory but nothing deeper. If a philosophy such as Stoicism proves to be helpful, then I want to incorporate it into my life, even if it isn’t what most of us consider part of modern Paganism. Instead of Wicca’s Goddess and God, I find myself drawn towards the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. And so on. But like then, I’m thinking back to the very first Pagan influences in my life and seeing which threads have carried on throughout my life.

It wouldn’t be accurate either to credit or blame my parents for the path I’m on, but they did influence me. One of the most influential things they did was to introduce me to Greek mythology at an early age. On some long-forgotten visit to the library, I came home with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. I must have borrowed it repeatedly for years, since my aunt was impressed enough with my love of it to give me my own copy when I was ten. (Really, the gift may simply have been to let other kids have a chance at getting the library’s copy.)

Book of Greek Myths cover
There’s the culprit!

Understand: although my parents made sure I knew the standard fairy tales, it was Greek mythology that shaped my childhood. Perhaps any children’s book of Greek mythology would have triggered this love, but I only remember this one—at a certain unreasoning level, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is Greek mythology for me. I think what this book had going for it was its narrative (rather than its often monochrome illustrations). Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire managed to take a wild assortment of Greek myths, likely  supplemented with a few Roman myths in disguise, and turn it into one big story, more or less.

The d’Aulaires never mention Christianity or any other modern religion; their world of Greek mythology exists in its own perfect, separate bubble. They included a map, so I could figure out where all these stories were taking place, and a bunch of family trees so that I could keep all the characters straight. The authors included much of what was needed to make this a child’s introductory textbook to Greek mythology; I doubt they ever imagined it also worked as a child’s textbook to Greek religion. The versions of the myths that I learned in this book became my standard versions, and even decades later, I have trouble accepting different versions as “true,” even though intellectually I understand that there were often several variations of each myth at any one time. I joke sometimes that while other children were raised on fairy tales, I was raised on Greek mythology. But it occurs to me now that while I probably had more formal teaching about Jesus’ life and the basics of Christianity, it’s likely that I actually put my heart into learning about the Greek gods.

The d’Aulaires ended their book on a dreary note:

Everything must come to an end, and so did the rule of Zeus and the other Olympian gods. All that is left of their glory on earth are broken temples and noble statues. Also the Muses fell silent, but their songs live on to this very day, and the constellations put up by the gods still glitter on the dark blue vault of the sky.

By adult standards, it’s a rushed ending. On the previous page, the authors are summing up the Aeneid and comparing the names of the Greek and Roman gods, giving no hint that all of this is suddenly going to just stop. Even by a child’s standards, the lack of explanation is frustrating. Why did the rule of the Olympians end? Why did the Muses stop singing? Why did the temples get broken, but the constellations were all right? If I asked my parents these questions, I have no memory of what they told me. Basically, after the first few times I read that page, I stopped turning to it. That way, the world in my book just went on. And as it turns out, the d’Aulaires were wrong in a way that they (probably) couldn’t have known, since there are people living today who honor the Olympians.

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4 thoughts on “My first Greek myths

  1. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was my first and most lasting Pagan influence. Like you, I read it over and over, checking it out from the library so often that the Children’s Librarian eventually put it in the reference section so the other children would get a chance!

    I finally got my own copy at Magus Books when I came up to visit Michael for the first time back in 1998. I’d have been embarrassed at my yelp of delight at its discovery if I hadn’t been so busy clutching it to my chest.

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    1. Yes, exactly! (Wow, how widespread was it?)

      I didn’t read their book of Norse mythology until a few years ago—I saw it at a used book store, and it doesn’t take that long to read if you’re an adult. It didn’t grab me. Still, I wonder every now and then if I’d have gone in the direction of heathenism if I’d read it back then when I was young and impressionable, or if I was/am predisposed to love Greco-Roman mythology, period.

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    1. Yes, when you were describing reading about Athena, it wasn’t the D’Aulaires’ prose that I flashed back to, but that picture of her rising out of Zeus’ head—I’m certain you know the one I mean.

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