My mom got me D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths when I was a kid. She was excited to get it for me. Up until that point I didn’t know what myths were so I was felt neutral about the gift. But she was insistent it was a Good book, I and thought that was interesting because she’d never been excited about one of my books before. So I gave it a try and was immediately hooked. I read it and re-read it. Sometimes I’d just flip through and study the glorious artwork. I kept coming back to it. Recently I bought a new copy and came back to it yet again. Until I reread it I didn’t realize that the love of mythology and the Greek Gods that it gave me were fundamental in my becoming a Pagan.
Here are 8 things the fabulous D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths taught me:
1. A creation story that was consistent with science
I was raised Christian, but even young me thought the bible creation story didn’t make any sense. I asked my mom “How was the world created in just 7 days when the dinosaurs lived for thousands of years before humans?”
In the Greek creation story I learned from the book, the earth was created in darkness and that the combination/union of the universe/sky (Uranus) with planet earth (Gaia) was the genesis for creating the first living beings (Titans). Later, earth’s second husband, the waters of the world (Pontus), brought all plants, animals, and humans into existence. The creation of earth and life from the universe and the fact of all plant, animal, and human life originally coming from the oceans are both scientifically correct. I might not have made that connection as a child but instinctively I liked the Greek store more because it actually made sense. It set the stage for my later search for a religion that wasn’t antithetical to science.
2. Recognition of the Gods by their symbols
Towards the beginning of the book there is a drawing of 13 Gods in Olympus. Though the picture isn’t labeled with their names, they are clearly recognizable from their symbols. Now when I look at images of ancient Greek statuary or pottery, I frequently known which God is pictured by their symbol and I gained this skill from D’Aulaires’.
No matter how different artists envision the Gods their symbols become their ID cards, clueing you in to their name and attributes. For example, Hermes is sometimes depicted as an mature man with a beard and sometimes he is pictured as a beardless youth. However, if you see winged sandals, a winged cap, or a caduceus you immediately recognize his identity. This gave me the foundation of knowledge about the Gods that has served me well as the Pagan. I honestly don’t know if I would have found Paganism without reading this book.
In an ancient Greek context, hubris is thinking you are better than the Gods. A non-thiestic interpretation would be having dangerous overconfidence or foolish pride. The theme of hubris showed up frequently enough in these myths that even young Andrea learned that thinking yourself better than the Gods was a BAD idea and would usually lead to harsh consequences. It included the stories of Arachne (turned into a spider), Niobe (children killed), Marsyas (skinned alive), and Bellerophon (crippled and shunned by Gods and men for life).
Learning an ethical concept like hubris early in life from these examples of others instead of having to suffer through the consequences of dangerous overconfidence or unwarranted pride yourself can only be a good thing.
4. The sacred cycle of seasons
Before reading this, I of course knew of the 4 seasons. However their link and relation to each other in an ongoing cycle was not clear to me until I read the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The story of events in the God’s lives causing the seasons. The joy of spring, the productivity of summer, the loss in fall and the grief of winter… This idea of the sacred cycle of seasons is a foundational Pagan concept that I first learned from D’Aulaires’.
There are a number of the included myths that contain stories of Gods and mortals suffering the consequences of having something they asked for not turn out they way they expected. Stories such as Helios and Phaethon, Eos and Tithonus, Zeus and Semele, and King Midas’s golden touch all contain such consequences.
In the story of Eos and Tithonus the dawn Goddess Eos falls in love with the mortal Tithonus and asks for him to live forever so she may be with him. He lives forever but does not stay forever young so shrinks down as he ages until he becomes a shrunken cricket that Eos is forced to hide away. Eos’s sister, the moon, Selene, learns from her sister’s ill-thought-through request. When she falls in love with the mortal Endymion, she asks that he always stay just as he is when she first saw him, asleep next to his flock. Her request is granted and because she thought to ask for him to stay forever young, they go on to have many children together. As these characters learned to be careful what they ask for, I learned the lesson as well.
6. Respect everyone
Respect, especially respect of strangers, is another virtual extolled in the myths. The hero Jason met Hera, disguised as a crone, who wanted to cross a flooded river. Without any thought to reward, because it was the right thing to do, Jason volunteered to carry her across. Though she became heavier and heavier as they crossed, he persevered and got her across the river.
You never known who is a God in disguise so treat everyone with respect.
7. Gods frequently come to earth and interact with mortals
This was a radical idea for a Christian kid who had learned that the God of the bible did not come to earth and thus distant. Someone that was hard to known because of the distant relationship. You had to take His existence on faith since he didn’t act directly on the world.
The Greek Gods, however, were much more knowable. They could wear human faces. They had likes and dislikes, and a physical body that looked a certain way. They were more like people you weren’t afraid to talk to or ask for help from.
8. The end is not the end
The book’s last paragraph states that the rule of the Olympians ended with nothing left but broken temples and statues. This left me unaccountably sad. The Gods, that I had just come to know and love through the vivid stories and imagines, were now dead. I thought about their crumbling temples and the unfairness of the Gods no longer being honored many times growing up. Other books certainly didn’t leave me feeling this way.
When I found Paganism, years later, and realized that the Gods were indeed still being worshiped and were not forgotten I was so happy. My old friends were not dead after all!
Go, (yes, right now) and buy this book for yourself. Even better, buy it for the kids in your life. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.