Love Letters to Novels: “D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths”

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! I know what we should do…write mash notes to novels and books we’ve loved over the years. I’m going to spend the rest of February writing about the authors and stories that have stolen my heart and become companions of my soul. What are some of the literary soulmates you adore to pieces?

I have a very clear memory of seeing D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths on the display shelf at the local library when I was about four, and I have very clear memories of picking it up, opening the pages and being instantly riveted by an oddly gentle yet ferocious drawing of some crazy man swallow a bundled-up baby whole, like a giant calzone.

I also remember thinking, What is this? and read on, learning about Kronos and the other Titans, and reading more and more about some of the oldest stories ever told. I became instantly enchanted by these strange, outsized stories of gods and goddesses. This was the first book that I just fell in love with; I checked it out again and again from the library, until my parents finally got the hint and bought a copy of it for me for my birthday. I read it all the time until it finally fell apart. My parents are kind of pack rats, but I’ve never been able to find it among the boxes of nostalgic rubbage in the basement. My guess is that it was sold in a garale sale some time along the way, and the thought makes me a little sad, though I hope it’s found a fine home somewhere else if that’s the case.

Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Hermes: they were like my first soap opera, with all their sexploits, jealousies, rivalries and inexplicable passions and rages. They weren’t like the Buddhist folk tales or Bible parables that surrounded me, which I found really bizarre and inexplicable. But the Greek pantheon strangely made sense, likely because they broke down archetypes into deeply familiar patterns and dynamics that even I could see as a small kid: I knew an Aphrodite kind of chick even in kindergarten, and there was something of Athena and Zeus in how I related to my dad as a girl, which is why I adored her at the time. (I kind of feel way more Artemis/Aphrodite as an adult: running in a forest under the moon and free love are way more up my alley now.)

You could say D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (and the one on Norse myths, which I read a bit later) sparked a lifelong interest. I went onto other mythology books, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and read a lot of the classics that came out of myths, from Ovid, Hesiod, all those dudes. But the knowledge that’s stuck to me longest and deepest comes from this book.

A few months ago, I noticed my oldest nephew reading a book about Greek myths, kind of a snazzy-looking modern encyclopedia that was all “Zeus! Dude of lightning!” He’s into all those Rick Riordan books and wanted to learn more about Greek gods and goddesses and myths. Of course I had to buy D’Aulaire’s for him, being a dorky adult. (Note: there is no way any adult is cool to a 12-year-old boy.) I was a little worried that it would seem fusty and boring to him; you know, kids these days. But he dug it and read it in one swoop, he said. He even let his teacher borrow it! I was psyched, of course; I love that the magic of some books never dies. Because gods and goddesses are eternal. And a picture of Kronos eating a baby is still kind of like, Whoa, no matter how old you are.

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