Originally published July 27th, 2015
Initially I was concerned this book was going to be really dry. Greek mythology is something I’ve always enjoyed, but so often non-fiction books have anything remotely interesting surgically removed before they are put on the shelves. I’m happy to say that this is not the case! This book is absorbing, well organized, and not so academic it’s incomprehensible. Kershaw even includes family trees where it’s relevant, so you can attempt to trace how the various characters are related to each other. I say attempt because, possibly in part due to the…liberal… sexual attitudes ascribed to the gods, the family trees can be a little difficult to follow. It doesn’t help when you have individuals reproducing with their relatives, or being born without intercourse at all. Or (in the case of Zeus) screwing anything that moved. I wasn’t expecting to watch the morality morph through the centuries of myths, as we got to the (relatively) newer and more detailed stories. In the beginning, there seemed to be fewer consequences, though it’s possible this has more to do with the paucity of details available in the earliest myths. Somebody might still attack and kill you, but generally only if you’d been keeping everyone else locked up under the earth so they can’t overthrow you. Or if you’ve been eating your own children. As we move into more recent myths, the list of things that can get you fed to a sea monster or turned in to a spider gets longer. I suppose part of that is because the tales have morphed from interactions between gods, to interactions between gods and man, and the power imbalance means when a man oversteps what the gods have defined as boundaries, he can be punished with impunity because the chances of him being able to stand up for himself against the god are slim to none. And as women slid onto the lower strata of society in everyday life, their positions of power as represented in the myths slid also, until they could be punished (or attacked) by men and by gods with impunity, and were only rescued if another man or another god stepped in. (Which may or may not happen, so don’t hold your breath. Apparently these myths predate the classic princess story.)
The icing on cake, for me, was how Kershaw ended each chapter with examples of these myths in the arts. One of my favourites was Euripides’ Medea (Medeia in the ancient Grecian spelling), the discussion of which takes up several pages. Detailed, stunning pages. Euripides’ sensitivity to Medea’s point of view, especially considering the attitudes of the time, completely blew me away. Although his attitude is kind of an outlier, even compared to his other works. For the rest of the book Kershaw just gives brief outlines of whatever works he’s discussing. He even mentions the occasional heavy metal album. Greek mythology does not seem to have become less popular with the passage of time. Scholars still study it, archaeologists excavate searching for truth, artists stretch their skills with it. It’s still everywhere, even after thousands of years. A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths is a brief guide to the stories that have made us who we are, and that still continue to form us.