by Marcia Williams
I was put off myths and legends at a young age when I was taught that they came under the forbidding heading of ‘Classics’. When I was at school, Greek myths were presented alongside black and white images of classical Greek statues, fig leaves and all. Probably unintentionally these exciting, funny, naughty and timeless stories were reduced to something dry, humourless and dusty. Added to which, they were taught by a rather eccentric Latin teacher whose dead-pan delivery blocked the way to the myths’ golden nuggets. Actually, to be really honest, none of us could get past the enthralling vision of the white spittle that always collected in the corner of her mouth, or the unfortunate rhythmical twitching of her shoulder!
So imagine my surprise and delight when I returned to myths and legends in later years and discovered what a feast for the imagination they truly are. Not only Greek myths, but myths and legends from around the world – including our own.
Each country’s myths give them a cultural identity, set as they are in their own landscape: Robin Hood in leafy Sherwood Forest, the Greek Gods above the clouds on Mount Olympus, the strange and magical gods that pass through the arid heavens of ancient Egypt, or the mythical sea creatures from the island nation of Japan. Every culture has their own myths reflecting their beliefs, history, geography and values. Myths and legends not only help us to explore this, but also the universal themes of good and evil, family friction, romantic love, quests, ambition and power, that are embedded in every culture. They show us how ancient societies sought to make sense of the world and help us to understand our culture and belief systems, as well as others. They show us how alike we are, and yet how unique we can be.
We all need heroes to inspire us to greater things and myths and legends are full of them. The sadness is that most of these ancient lands were patriarchal communities, so it suited them to write about male heroes, showing men as strong leaders and women trailing in their wake. As Mary Beard points out in Women and Power, in Greek mythology Zeus gives birth to Athena via his head, proving women are not even needed for procreation! So there are far fewer mythical female heroes to inspire young girls, but that should not put them off exploring these wonderful stories. As time goes on myths change in their retelling and gradually become more aligned to the spirit of the contemporary age, so that female figures who once lived in the shadows may suddenly be more central to the story. I look to future retellings with anticipation as a new and feisty generation of young female authors grab hold of these myths and make them their own!
A knowledge of myths is undoubtedly necessary to explore literature and the arts in depth, but for me that is not the point of introducing them to children. It is simply that they are the most fantastic stories, and the ones that you see being retold time after time are those that are rich in meaning and continue to remain relevant over the years. The best time to first read these myths is when children are young and can enjoy them just as stories, bringing them to life with their incredible imaginations – without the weight of any foreknowledge or academic enquiry. Over the years I have seen how these tales inspire young people to invent their own stories and poems or create their own artworks. Myths also lead young people into dreaming of the great heroes and occasional heroine of the past and start them wondering what feats of heroism they might perform to become the stuff that future legends are made from!
Finally and most importantly, it is vital that we inform our young that if they misbehave Zeus will surely zap them with a thunderbolt. Had I realized that during my childhood, I might not have been so cruelly focused on our Latin teacher’s eccentricities and have listened to what she had to say instead. Then I might have never been hit by that thunderbolt in, now let me think – when was it? It must have been nineteen hundred and something or other – but it still hurts when the wind’s in the North or someone mentions the Classics!
This is a guest post from Marcia Williams. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.