Guest post by Dr Steven Kershaw
It was a joyous moment. I’m a Classicist, a person who spends his life in the world of dead languages and the people who don’t speak them anymore, when, out of the blue, a fantastic opportunity came my way. Wide Eyed Editions, who produce utterly gorgeous children’s books, invited me to collaborate on a fabulously illustrated encyclopaedia featuring fifty of Ancient Greece’s most powerful gods and goddesses, fascinating earth-dwelling mortals, and terrifying monsters. It was going to be called Mythologica.
What could be better? I teach this stuff for Oxford University, but I’ve loved these stories ever since I was a kid myself. I was lucky to attend a lovely Primary School in Halifax in Yorkshire, where, for the last 20 minutes of each day, our teachers would read to us from wonderful books. It was here that I discovered Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, Swallows and Amazons, The Chronicles of Narnia and so many other enchanting and inspiring worlds. Then one day a new young teacher appeared in the school – a Classics graduate doing teaching practice, I think – and he read bits out of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to us. I thought this was totally amazing! Gods, monsters, heroes, fighting, astonishing adventures… I was entranced!
I know that reading aloud for pleasure is now getting squeezed out of many schools’ day, but part of the magic of all this for me was the very fact that we could hear the stories. And this was an authentic experience. It was the way the Greek myths were first transmitted. The English word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek mythos – a tale, or something you say – and many of the stories are the product of a long oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation, as my teachers did for me. The Chorus of Euripides’ play Ion tell of how the they were often related by women working at the loom:
Many a song and story I have heard
Of sons that mortal women bore to gods.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus and others listen to songs by the bard Demodocus about events in the Trojan War. Odysseus weeps, but the rest of the audience, like my 10-year-old self, revel in the superlative storytelling.
The power of these tales is enormous. In Plato’s Republic Socrates speaks of the influence of myths, and suggests that children should be told stories before they start physical training, and that although their educators should use true stories, they should start with fiction. Plato’s brother Adeimantus adds,
We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mould their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies.
I don’t remember doing it, but I must have gone home and enthused about these story-readings to my Mum and Dad, because my Grandpa bought me a copy of the Iliad (in translation, obviously! I learned Greek later). Like a good ten-year-old should, I read it with my torch under the bedclothes, and was completely drawn into the world of ‘Swift-footed’ Achilles, Hector the ‘Tamer of Horses’, ‘White-armed’ Helen, Thetis ‘of the Silver Feet’, and all the other brilliant characters. They became my friends, my enemies, my role-models, and my warnings.
Then I followed Odysseus on his incredible journey home from Troy in the Odyssey, marvelling at the grisly one-eyed cannibal Cyclops, imagining the song of the Sirens, and loving the cunning tricks that ‘Wily’ Odysseus played. From there I moved on to Virgil’s Aeneid, travelling with Trojan prince Aeneas and his band of refugees, and listening to his moving account of the fall of Troy, watching him break lovely Queen Dido’s heart, and accompanying him on his visit down into the Underworld.
In real life, I then went to the very down-to-earth Heath Grammar School in Halifax, an excellent institution which still bore an inscription over the door where the 15th Century stonecarver had been made to correct his mistake of calling it a Grammer School. There they made us learn Latin, and lots of grammar…
Latin is a language
Dead as dead can be;
First it killed the Romans,
Now it’s killing me.
All are dead who spoke it,
All are dead who wrote it;
All are dead who learnt it –
Lucky dead, they’ve earnt it.
But I was ready for it! I loved it, and when they offered me the chance to do Ancient Greek, I grabbed it with both hands. Now I could read about my heroes in their own language!
I did a lot of that when I studied Classics at Bristol University, where, towards the end of my Ph.D. I stumbled into teaching entirely by accident. I’d never planned to go down that route, but I was mistakenly offered some teaching work by someone who thought I was a historian rather than an Ancient Historian. I needed the money, so I took the job, only to find that I really, really enjoyed it.
So now I live in an Oxfordshire village with my artist wife Lal Jones, and our English Springer Spaniel called Hero (a girl-dog, named after the heroine Hero rather than any male hero!), and I’ve been a Classics tutor for over 30 years, travelling in the world of the Ancient Greeks, both physically and in my head. But I would never have met the fearless, beautiful and talented goddess Athena, shared in Jason’s awesome journey to capture the Golden Fleece, found out how to get past Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog of the Underworld, or had the opportunity to read, write and teach about them, without being read aloud to, just for the sheer joy of it, by that inspirational teacher at my Primary School. If only someone would read to me for the last twenty minutes of every day now!
MYTHOLOGICA : An Encyclopaedia of gods, monsters, and mortals from ancient Greece is written by Dr Steven Kershaw (B.A. (Hons.); Ph.D.) with illustrations from Victoria Topping publishes on 3rd September from Wide Eyed Editions, £20 (Hardback) and is suitable for 8+ readers and all who love Greek mythology.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.