Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Your basic guide
I was first introduced to Greek mythology in sixth grade. An entire quarter was devoted to studying Mount Olympus and the mythical creatures who roamed its lush landscape. The quarter culminated with the study of Oysseus’ journey in The Iliad, an epic that is so illustrious and inspiring that it requires a few building blocks before being read. The Iliad is an odyssey, and so much of its majesty lies in the ethos that guides Odysseus. This ethos is faithfully embedded in the Greek gods. These Greek gods are what bring so much of the magic to the story.
Greek mythology runs deep. There is a large cast of characters and there is a hierarchy within that cast. Once you know the major players and the peripheral players, there are also mythical locations and monuments that come into play, and before you know it, you are lost in an entirely different universe. It’s entrancing, but it can get confusing if you don’t have a good grasp of the base level characters. If you’re looking for a great starting point for yourself or for a child who is interested in Greek epics and mythology, The Greek Gods by Bernard Evslin, Dorothy Evslin, and Ned Hoopes is an absolute must-read.
Greek Gods was published in the 60’s, and it’s formatted similarly to a dictionary where you find the word and then the definition next to it. In this book, you find the character and then their backstory; however, characters are in order of their status and importance rather than alphabetically, and the book is split into two sections: gods of the Pantheon, and nature myths. Naturally, the first god readers meet is Zeus.
Immediately, we are met with drama and adventure as we experience Zeus’ take-down of Cronos, his father, and we learn how the world was divided up amongst the gods. After Cronos’ death, the three gods rolled dice to determine who took what. Zeus won first, so he chose the sky. Poseidon followed, so he chose the sea, and Hades, who always had a dark cloud that seemed to loom over him and bring about eternal bad luck, was stuck with the underworld. The earth was subsequently held as a commonwealth and was given to the goddesses to govern and look after.
I haven’t read Greek Gods in years, and reading it again as an adult had me experiencing the mythology much differently from when I was a sixth grader. Back then, it completely went over my head that earth was a commonwealth in Greek mythology. Having been born in the American commonwealth of Puerto Rico, this is now a piece of the story that I find incredibly interesting. It helped make sense of many of Earth’s idiosyncracies that are referred to throughout the stories.
One of my favorite aspects of Greek mythology is its influence on the English language. Greek Gods has a glossary in the back that is dedicated to giving you names and words used in Greek Mythology and the English words that derive from them. Arachnae, a female character that is incredibly skilled with weaving yarn, is eventually turned into a spider by a jealous Athene. Her yarn becomes her webbing, and this is where we get the word “arachnid” from. Cronos, Zeus’ father and the god of time, is also the base for the word “chronology”. In the Greek mythological universe, there is a connection between horse, moon, and sea. For this reason, a female horse was called a “mare”, a sea name that lives on in the modern-day English-speaking vocabulary. The powerful way in which Greek mythology shines through our present-day culture is astounding.
The narrator has a rather dry humor, they manage to point out deficiencies in the gods in such a nonchalant manner. Womanizing characters, such as Zeus and Poseidon, are referred to as “great travelers”. Curiously enough, Poseidon created the squid, the jellyfish, and the swordfish to startle nymphs who caught his wandering eye, but then he created the dolphin to ease his wife’s jealous rage.
Yet, amidst the tales of humor and power struggles, of love and vengeance, my most favorite myth is that of Demeter and Persephone. Unfortunately, it involves Hades, the god of the underworld, but through his darkness we see the reason for the change of seasons; for the dead trees in the winter and the trees fully blossomed in the summer.
Their tale is one of sadness and melancholy, but Demeter’s agricultural dominion in conjunction with Persephone’s reign over all the flowers is captivating. Their ability to create and maintain so much beauty is powerfully juxtaposed by the pain that Hades brings to their lives. The use of the pomegranate as a medium for temptation evokes such a sultry vibe, and is quite reminiscent of the apple that tempted Eve and Adam. Forbidden fruit seems to be an age-old metaphor.
Despite Demeter’s good nature, her suffering manifests itself in vengeful ways. When Demeter is crying out for her daughter after she learns of her kidnapping by Hades, a little boy laughs at her and she turns him into a lizard, but his life as a lizard was short-lived because he was eaten by a hawk. Demeter teaches us a lesson in compassion, as we should never take pleasure or find humor in someone else’s grief.
As the story goes on, readers experience a deep winter and the death of everything green while Demeter is in mourning, and then a beautiful state of bright, green summer when she is happy and reunited with Persephone. The mythology behind winter is that it was brought upon by Demeter’s grief. By the end of this story, we are reminded that for everything there is a season, there is a purpose, and there is a special timing.
Despite all the lovely life lessons that we pick up along the way of this book, there are parts that are deeply disturbing. The men are philanderers and often take women against their will. Again, when I read this as a sixth grader, so much of this flew over my head. I was so entranced by the magic and the epic settings that I didn’t take notice to just how ancient the culture really was, but even though I didn’t pick up on it at that age, my teacher used the opportunity to remind the class that understanding the time period from when any book written is imperative to understanding the work, the author, and the culture that influenced them both. It’s important to remember that Greek mythology was created around 700 BC, and that it began as oral tradition, meaning the stories changed as it was narrated from one person to another.
Furthermore, keep in mind that these gods, although they fancy themselves infallible, are deeply flawed. Greek Gods doesn’t set out to portray them in a good, wholesome light, but rather simply a powerful one. When Prometheus, who has a connection with humans, asks Zeus why he can’t introduce them to the gift of fire, Zeus begrudgingly admits his fear that if humans know fire, they will no longer see the importance of the gods, thus turning them away from worship. Naturally, this doesn’t appeal to Zeus, seeing as his lust for power is almost greater than his wandering eye. Zeus tells Prometheus,
“Do you not know, Prometheus, that every gift brings a penalty?
This is the way the Fates weave destiny –
by which gods also must abide” (58).
Readers are reminded of the natural order that exists in life, an order that even the gods weren’t above. Furthermore, we take away the infinite truth that humans, once educated, can no longer be subjugated. Whether that was the intent or not, Zeus' words make a strong case for the importance of learning and being well read.
The book picks up again with brief encounter with Hercules, who ends up saving Prometheus after Zeus punishes him for giving humans fire. This punishment also serves as Pandora’s debut, another mythological figure we see quite a bit in present-day. How many people reading this own a Pandora bracelet? Part of me has always wanted one, but part of me doesn’t want to open that box.
While readers witness humans receive life’s burdens as punishment for receiving fire, we also witness their eternal luck as they somehow manage to dodge the burden of lost hope. The narrator explains,
“And so there would have been an end to man.
For, though he can bear endless trouble,
he cannot live with no hope at all” (64).
It’s incredible how amidst some of the horror that is hidden within these stories, there are also morals to each tale that turn out to sometimes be uplifting, but always be a lesson. The true remarkability in Greek mythology is not just the magic of the sights and sounds of the ever-changing settings, or the complexities of the larger-than-life deities, but in just how timeless these stories have proven to be.