By Ana Martin
Busy schedules and curriculum choices can mean that students miss the opportunity to study classical languages and literature.
“But they are obsolete, so it is not a problem!” Many people will say.
Indeed, they are partly right: classical mythology per se is not essential. But that is not the whole story: the truth is that authors of all periods engage in one way or another with classical literature. You can ignore classical references only as much as you can ignore the geographical mentions, the political connections or the links to Bible.
Here is an example: you can indeed read and enjoy Shakespeare without noticing the classical references. However, Shakespeare had a classical grammar school education, and his texts open a conversation with his sources that adds depth, interest and humour to enjoy his plays.
Take this passage from Henry the VIth, act 3, scene 3:
“ I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.”
One would be hard-pressed to understand this passage without a basic grounding in Greek literature. Yes, that information may be in the notes, but your own background knowledge is always more powerful and interesting.
The same can be said for a multitude of writers, from Chaucer through Wilde and all the way to Toni Morrison. Even The Hunger Games are enriched if you can read and appreciate the exchange that the author is having with the classical world!
The truth is that every year I start working with teens who are not thriving as readers, and I often notice this happens in part because they don’t understand the classical references and vocabulary in the novels they are reading. So how can you help them bridge this gap?
Fortunately, this is not an all or nothing situation. Whereas I recommend learning Greek and Latin if at all possible, there are other, more accessible paths to acquire classical knowledge. And it can be much more fun than you expect!
If you want to support a teen reader, these are the 5 areas of knowledge every learner can and should acquire early, followed by tips and tricks on how to get up to speed:
1. The Greek gods
The main gods of Greek mythology constantly appear not only in reference but also as part of the vocabulary. An informed reader should be able to relate the names of the gods to their attributes and role in the pantheon. Once they are familiar with the Greek names, they should also learn the Roman equivalents.
You can download a handy cheat sheet here with the main names, roles and appearance. I have included all the big names: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Poseidon/Neptune, Ares/Mars, Athena/Minerva, Dionysus/Bacchus, Apollo, Artemis/Diana, Demeter/Ceres, Hermes/Mercury, Hephaestus/Vulcan, Hades/Pluto and Aphrodite/Venus.
2. The Trojan War and its aftermath
A good reader will be very familiar with the events leading to the Trojan War, the conflict itself along with its protagonists and the consequences everyone suffers. At a minimum, there should be some familiarity with the following:
The judgement of Paris and the role of Aphrodite, Hera, Athena and Zeus
The beauty of Helen of Troy
The rage of Achilles and the desecration of the body of Hector
Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca
The Trojan horse
The fall of Troy
3. The Theban plays: Oedipus and beyond
A central reference in understanding tragedy, Oedipus and his family keep reappearing in literature. Who has not heard about Freud’s Oedipus complex? At the very least, readers should be familiar with the main characters in the story and the dire consequences of their tragic actions.
These names should be well known:
4. The geography of ancient Greece
There are some cities and geographical features of Greece that have left a lasting impact on the literary tradition. Here are but some examples:
Sparta, a city renowned for its
5. The Underworld
This may seem like a very niche area of study, but the lasting impact of the Greek depiction of the world of the dead is present throughout the literary tradition, from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy to the Percy Jackson series. Readers should be familiar at least with the following:
The rape of Persephone
The concept of katabasis (καταβασις), or descent to the underworld
Famous punishments: Sisyphus and Tantalus
The geography of the underworld: Elysean fields, Tartarus, the River Styx
Perhaps this feels like an extraordinary amount of information to retain. However, knowledge is easier to learn if it is part of a good story. The 5 books below are my top recommendation for those who want to learn about Greek mythology while reading gripping and engrossing novels:
Circe by Madeline Miller: more than a read, this is a fantastical journey for emerging adult readers. It is great for learning about heroes, geography and the character of the different deities, and it will be devoured quickly and avidly.
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood: highly readable and provocative, this is a great retelling of the Odyssey that will engage young readers and leave them asking for more.
The Children of Iocasta by Natalie Haynes: a fantastic open door to a very difficult topic and your best bet to become familiar with the Theban cycle in real 21st-century style.
The King Must Die, by Mary Renault: this novel revolves around the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, but it goes way beyond the central story. Reading Mary Renault is like jumping on a time machine: I recommend it both to young readers and the grown-ups in the house.
Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan: this may stick like a sore thumb in the list, but the truth is that no other work of fiction grips a young audience as well as this series, and the amount of vocabulary, background knowledge – and excitement! younger readers will feel they cannot be found elsewhere. It also has companion movies, which are a great way to entice reluctant readers.
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