Sunday, February 28, 2010

It's All Greek to Me

Each night before bedtime, the boys and I have been reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It’s…just ok, to be honest, from a literary standpoint. But the voice is fun and clever, the characters memorable, and the boys get a kick out of the chapter headings: Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death, My Dinner Goes Up in Smoke, I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom. There’re lots of muffled laughs from sleepy heads resting on pillows.

It’s led me to seek out some good books on Greek Mythology, however, as I’ve discovered how very little the kids know about it. And how relatively little I know about it. I have fuzzy images of Icarus flying too close to the sun, a minotaur in a maze, titans and demigods. The boys think Hercules is a cartoon character, the only Apollo is the spacecraft (and now a speed skater), and their only connotation with the word ‘Olympian’ is paired with the games on their TV.

In the novel, a semester of Greek Mythology is a precursor for protagonist Percy’s adventures; it really should have been for my boys, too. I want them to know what their current literature, buildings, and namesakes are based upon. I want to fill in a few of those glaring holes we all have in our education.

We’ve had some great discussions: Why did the Greeks believe in many gods when we believe in just one? Is there really a god of lightning? Of luck? Of thieves? Could people really become gods? Can they now? Do we believe that?

I don’t know…do you? They frown. They reason it out, lapping Sunday School theology over their limited real world experience, comparing and contrasting it to what history they know, what little perspective they’ve been granted. They ponder the old myths newly presented to them.

It’s a precious thing, this sort of illumination. It’s good for them (for us) to realize their current world view is something that’s been long weather-stripped and worn, smoothed like a stone by the seas of time and human history. They didn’t get here from nowhere. They--complete with the beliefs they’ve inherited and adopted--are not islands.

So by the light of the reading lamp, we discuss how, when it comes right down to it, all humanity’s beliefs share a common thread…a rope we all cling to. It’s about attempting to explain our world, unveiling mysteries that frighten us, whether we as a people are trying to figure out why the sun rises or why the earth shakes, or more perpetual head scratchers, like how the universe began, from what or who or where we all derived, where we fit in our vast universe. Our need to label the unknown carries on: in churches and synagogues. In laboratories. In university lecture halls. While snuggled under blankets, reading children’s literature.

At least now, the next time they hear someone say they’re ‘between a rock and a hard place’, they’ll envision not just the current situation, but Homer’s odyssey as well: a mortal man railing against an angry ocean and unseen danger that once upon a time, not really that long ago, storytellers felt compelled to name. And the next time they're pondering something larger than life, perhaps they'll think of Atlas, and they will know they are not the first or last to shoulder the weight of their world. And then a new layer of understanding of the human condition which is rightfully theirs (and rightfully ours) will slip into place.

Or maybe that’s way too much to ask of a Percy Jackson novel.
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