Monday, 2 September 2019

Choosing The Gods by Steve Kershaw, Author Of Mythologica (Guest Post)

Imagine my joy! 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 all of a sudden I receive a fantastic opportunity to collaborate on a fabulously illustrated children’s encyclopaedia featuring fifty of Ancient Greece’s most powerful gods and goddesses, fascinating earth-dwelling mortals, and terrifying monsters. What could be better? I teach this stuff for Oxford University, but I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid myself. At my lovely Primary School in Halifax in Yorkshire, our teachers would read to us from wonderful books for the last 20 minutes of each day. And when a new young teacher read bits out of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to us, I thought this was totally amazing! Gods, monsters, heroes, astonishing adventures… I was entranced!

So who should I include in Mythologica? Obviously the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses. They can be a pretty jealous lot: if I’d left any of them out, they would just have ruined my life in the most horrible way imaginable. But they are also completely entrancing: Zeus, who can blast even the most awesome of giants into oblivion with his thunderbolts; Athena, his daughter, born from his head, with her mesmerising grey-eyed beauty and fearsome intelligence; Artemis, running free in the countryside with her dogs; or the blacksmith Hephaestus, who was severely disabled but still physically powerful, and married to Aphrodite, the most beautiful female in the universe! In some ways they seem incredibly distant and alien, and yet again they can be so like us. They are a close-knit family, and they behave like one, always squabbling and arguing with each other, but if any outsider threatens them, they immediately come together in inseparable unity. They’re just so easy for children to relate to!

Illustrations from the book by Victoria Topping
Selecting the mortals was like choosing a sports team from a squad of world superstars. Some, like wily Odysseus, beautiful Helen, mighty Heracles, swift-footed Achilles, and Medea the barbarian witch, picked themselves, but sadly others had to be left on the bench. Greek mythology can seem a bit male-dominated, but we wanted to strike a slightly fairer balance between male and female characters, and the ones who made the cut had to bring the amazing stories, staggering achievements, and brilliant skills that would excite our interest and emotions, and make us think. Our mortals needed to be people who we could admire, fear, love, hate, laugh at, or feel sorry for. As heroes and heroines they had be able to do things that we ordinary mortals could never dream of, face unimaginable dangers, make terrible mistakes, and possibly win eternal glory.

Our humans also needed to look great, and to provide a diverse range of character types. So in looking for inspiration for Victoria Topping’s magnificent artwork we thought about their personalities and behaviour, what they wore, what distinctive things they carried, their hair- and/or skin-colour, what their eyes looked like, where they lived, who they interacted with, and what amazing powers or abilities they might have. I think we found a hero for a very reader.

When it came to the monsters we just wanted the biggest, baddest, mightiest, weirdest, wildest, snakiest, doggiest, fire-breathingest, flesh-eatingest, turn-you-to-stone-est, set of colourful, evil, hybrid creatures that the Greek myths could offer. They had to encapsulate that wonderful world of ‘the other’ that kids find so entrancing. Cerberus the hell-hound, the Gorgon Medusa, the dangerously alluring Sirens, the bronze giant Talos, and their various brothers and sisters all had to thrill, scare, and astound.

Why are these tales so important and enduring? At heart, they are just fantastic stories with wondrous characters, and children adore them for that reason alone. The myths are so vivid that we feel we can get to know the gods, monsters and mortals personally. We can meet Athena, travel with Jason, and fight with the Cyclops. But there’s more to them than that. Myths are good to think with. But they’re not preachy, and they’re often morally ambiguous. We don’t find straightforward answers; easy morals are sometimes hard to find; it’s not always about ‘Good people’ versus ‘Bad people’, with the Good ones winning in the end - even the good guys do bad things; life can be unfair; bad things happen when it isn’t your fault, but they also happen when it is; and, ‘they all lived happily ever after’ doesn’t happen very often. So these Greek myths challenge our children’s imagination, and invite them to reflect on how we live today, presenting them with lessons and problems not just about the world as we would like it to be, but about the world as it is. The world of Greek mythology is still very much our children’s world.

Steve Kershaw is an expert on dead languages and the people who don’t speak them anymore. He’s been captivated by the Greek myths ever since childhood when he used to read Homer’s Iliad with his torch under the bedclothes. Steve wrote his PhD under Richard Buxton, arguably the leading scholar on Greek myth in the world. He has taught Classics in numerous establishments, including Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and Warwick University. He runs the European Studies Classical Tour for Rhodes College and the University of the South. He’s also an internationally renowned jazz musician.

http://stevekershaw.com/

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