Don’t Fear the Greeks
Greek mythology is making a welcome comeback in print and on the silver screen
Amo, amas, amat…Most educated people know what that means, and all the cultural connotations that come with it: love poetry, naughty Emperors, Molesworth and I, Claudius. But how many of us can say the same for λυω, λυεις, λυει? The paradigm used to teach Greek to children challenges from the beginning: it means I loosen. Recently, there has been a fashion for παυω — arguably even worse, as that means I stop.
There’s still stigma attached to the study of Greek. “Showing off?” asked a friend when I showed him the epigraph written in Greek, with an English translation, to my new children’s book, The Liberators, which takes Euripides’s Bacchae as a starting point for an investigation into freedom and frenzy.
While Latin has made a comeback (largely through the So You Really Want to Learn… books, the surprise success of Harry Mount’s Amo, Amas and All That, and excellent histories such as Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum), the language of Sophocles, Homer, Plato and Aristophanes is deemed too hard, too obscure. Why sweat over gammas and deltas when you can watch buffed-up Brad in Troy?
But do not fear: there is hope. It comes in the form of a young boy who finds he has mysterious powers and is sent to a magical boarding school where he learns how to use them — no, it’s not our friend Harry Potter, but someone you’ll be hearing a great deal about soon: Percy Jackson. He’s half-god, half-boy and all hero. In the series by Rick Riordan, the Greek gods turn out to be real and not only take an active interest in human affairs, but quite literally conduct them, as they sire half-divine children left, right and centre, including the eponymous Percy, whose father is Poseidon. The books are light-hearted, readable and immensely popular (give them to a non-reading child and see what effect they have), with amusing concessions to modernity (they use Coca-Cola for libations). They have led to a film which is currently on release, starring the heartthrob-in-training Logan Lerman. J. K. Rowling herself used a quote from Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers to kick off the final book in her series. And now Zizou Corder, the mother and daughter team whose book Lionboy was an enormous hit, are producing Halo, in which a girl is first rescued by centaurs, then finds herself involved with Spartan sailors. For younger readers, Lucy Coats has written a series called Greek Beasts and Heroes.
Children love Greek mythology. They love its weirdness, its remoteness. They love learning the names of monsters such as Chimeras and Cyclopes. They thrill to the elation and the horror. These stories stand at the beginning of Western culture, and still resonate with and reflect us today. Let us hope, then, that from here a new hunger for Greek will rise. Χαιρετε! Or as you mortals say: Rejoice!