“It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea-lions, lions, human beings and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.”
Written by Stephen Fry, the Greek myths are retold in a brilliantly entertaining way as we learn about the greatest stories that have ever told. Passed down through millennia, the stories are embedded deeply in the traditions, tales and cultural DNA of the West, from the birth of the universe to the creation of humankind. Smart, funny, and informative, the stories of the Titans and Gods are ones we all recognise – from Athena’s birth from the crack in Zeus’s great head, Persephone’s trips down into the dark realm of Hades, the terrible and endless fate of Prometheus after his betrayal of Zeus, and the evil torments of Pandora’s jar. Their tales of ribaldry and revelry, warfare and worship, debauchery, love affairs and life lessons, slayings and suicides, triumphs and tragedies are told in a spellbinding way, as Fry explores them in all their rich and deeply human relevance.
If like me, your favourite lessons in primary school were learning about Ancient Greece and Egypt and about all of the fantastical stories about Gods and Kings who helped to shape the world we live in today, then this is a book that you need read.
A collection of short stories, Stephen Fry narrates them in a way that makes these recognisable myths accessible to all readers. As he intricately weaves them together, starting at the beginning with a state of nothingness (Chaos) when Gaia (Mother Earth) and Ouranos (Father Sky) suddenly appear, Fry goes on to introduce these popularly divine figures in an engaging and funny way, as Gaia and Ouranos go on to create the Titans, who were soon to be overthrown by the most well-known God of all, Zeus.
There’s a lot of information to take in and so much to be learnt, but Fry’s narration makes these many characters and their stories easy to follow. The stories on their own are concise, but they are also linked together so well that they effortlessly take you from the beginning of time to the Age of Gods and Mortals (our creation), ending before the Heroic age (which allows his second book, Heroes, to neatly follow on from this one).
The stories soon start to focus on a single character or two as they each have their own message or lesson to be learnt (for the reader and the characters themselves!). And it’s not just about how the Gods came into being and their many incestual relationships and villainous conflicts, but it’s also incredibly interesting to learn about how these stories are relevant to us today, as the Gods went on to invent humanity.
As well as many popular stories such as Midas’ golden touch, Pandora’s box, and the love story of Eros and Psyche (Love and Soul), what I found most interesting about this book was how these myths have influenced our language. As a writer, I obviously have a love for words, so to learn about the origin of words such as echo (Echo), narcissism (Narcissus), and spider (Arachne), of how the bee got his sting and the reasons for the seasons, many of these stories blew my mind with insight.
However, the book obviously doesn’t tell every story, so there are many popular myths that aren’t mentioned in this instalment. There’s nothing about Hercules, Icarus flying too close to the sun, the Minotaur and the Maze, Medusa and her snakes, or Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece, but it’s likely that many of these will be in Fry’s second book, Heroes, which I can’t wait to read next.