Friday, December 16, 2011

A Need to Understand

The Greek gods have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I loved their power and beauty, but also their weaknesses and petty jealousies, which made them seem more like us. Donna Jo Napoli, in her introduction to her Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes and Monsters, illustrated by Christina Balit, puts it beautifully: “In reading the myths, we begin to understand that the ancient Greeks must have wanted more than just the big answers from their gods,” she writes. “They must have also wanted their gods to be a reflection that could help them understand themselves.”

Napoli went back to the oldest Greek sources for her myths, Hesiod and Homer. I got to interview her about her research recently, and she set me thinking about just how ancient these myths are. In fact, they’re so much a part of Western civilization that we make certain assumptions—Napoli was not exempt! She and artist Christina Balit had a point of disagreement about the half-bull, half-man Minotaur. Napoli believed that the Minotaur had a human torso on a bull’s body, but when Balit’s illustration of him arrived, she’d portrayed the Minotaur with a human body and a bull’s head. After Napoli went back to substantiate her view, she discovered that the oldest representations in art and sculpture convey the Minotaur as Balit had (you can see Balit's image of the Minotaur here).

It’s such a great example of how important that component is for us as readers, to be able to envision something in our own minds and “make it ours.” It’s why I’m so often disappointed in the movie version of events and characters from books, for which I’d already created my own images. Napoli could find no written reference about which way the Minotaur’s anatomy leans (only descriptions of a “half man, half bull”). The artists who made their ancient paintings and sculptures were the more readily available, with their bull’s head, man’s body depictions. With words alone, we can picture what makes sense to each of us individually as readers, but the job of painters and sculptors is to construct a physical representation of their vision.

For all of us, the seeds of that impulse come from a desire to understand the things we read about or experience in our everyday dealings. Very much like those ancient Greeks, trying to make sense of the events in their lives.


  1. I'm so happy to see this book reviewed here. Donna Jo Napoli has such a deep knowledge of the Greek myths and writes about them with tremendous grace.

  2. As do you, Pinkie ; ) Happy holidays to you and all best wishes for 2012