If you’ve read any Greek mythology, you know how it stays with you. The stories are everywhere in pop culture, the trappings apparent in everything–words, common metaphors, even fashion. I devoured Greek mythology–along with Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese mythologies–as a child, then later, as a teen. Sometime in my early twenties, it fell by the wayside; I started reading less mythology and more analysis thereof. But the stories themselves remained with me, because mythology has a habit of doing that. It sneaks up on you at the most unexpected moment and whispers things like “Yes, that is a totally Oedipal subplot in the novel you’re reading, but I’ll bet no one actually ends up blind,” or “Hey girl, see how you’re jealous of your two best friends because they’re talking to that guy? That’s so Ill(iad) of you!”
And sometimes, when you’re stuck in a no sleep rut, lying in the dark save for your kid’s Twilight Turtle, with a too-amped-up to sleep kid, Mythology will come to the rescue. Sure, you could pick up an illustrated D’Aulaire’s and read it before bed. But there’s something about telling myths, about sharing oral stories, that’s well-suited to the dark. And once you get past explaining the concept of gods and goddesses, the stories themselves are easy to tell–and rather enthralling, even for the least attentive of kids.
Mythology and Your Toddler: How to Get Started
Not all myths are kid appropriate. Aside from the obvious themes–chasing down unwilling women/nymphs, for example–some stories, like Echo & Narcissus, are too slow moving for small attention spans. But stories about things kids are used to, like the moon, the stars, and the sun, are always a hit. So are action stories, like the labors of Heracles and Thesus & the Minotaur (just gloss over the whole punishment, lying with a bull part). Most myths are easily shortened, or broken into sections, too, so you’re not recounting hours’ worth of lineage to a bored toddler in the dark.
Much like fairy tales, many stories contain something frightening–the Nemean Lion or Lernaean Hydra in the labors of Heracles, for instance. And that’s okay–with a little reassurance, these monsters or frightening aspects are a safe way to explore the dark, with Mummy or Daddy or both, nearby.
Explaining the concept of gods and goddesses, on the other hand, can be difficult. Given that most kids are comfortable with magic, though, it’s actually fairly easy to give them a reasonable explanation of the pantheon. Here’s my go to:
A long, long time ago, the Greek people believed in gods and goddesses. Gods and goddesses were like magic men and women, or magic boys and girls, who could make the rain and thunder and lightning come, or make magic hammers. Some of them helped animals, and others helped people. And because they were so strong and powerful, the Greeks would ask them for help–help growing their food, or fighting off something bad, or help getting better when they were sick.
That’s the short version. Depending on the story, we explore which god or goddess is involved a little more; in the labors of Heracles, Athena, Artemis, and Apollo show up in a couple of the feats, so Mir knows a bit more about them. And he knows that Hera was mean, and made Heracles crazy so that he did something very bad. And therein lies the trick–using easier words, and simplifying the stories. As a writer, I often want to explore backstory and think about why, when, and how. But Mir, and other small children, don’t always need that. Their attention spans are short, and they can only handle one, possibly two, big ideas in a story at a time. Which means there’s no reason to discuss Hera’s jealousy, or Zeus and Alcmenae, or anything other than the straight out labors when I’m telling him about Heracles.
How To Choose A Myth
- Start small. Tell a story that can easily be broken into parts, or one that takes less than ten minutes. (See the list of myths that work well below for ideas.)
- Skip unnecessary family histories. Heracles is the son of Zeus. Zeus’ wife Hera doesn’t like him because she’s mean. That’s enough to start with.
- Start with action stories, where the hero or heroine has to go on a quest (which can be shortened if necessary), or fight something.
- Look for myths that tie into the natural world, or something your toddler is particularly interested in (in our case, the stars).
Taking Your Stories A Little Farther
One of the things I love about stories, and mythology in particular, is that they open up a discourse. It’s easy to explore an idea–just one, mind–behind a story during the telling. Last night, since I told Mir about Heracles and the Garden of Hesperides again (can you tell he loves Heracles? Come dark, it’s “Heracles, mummy! Heracles!”), we talked for a moment about how stories can change over time, or how can there can be more than one version of something. Why? Because I’ve read two versions of that story.
Similarly, when telling Mir a story about the natural world, we take a moment to talk about what stars are, and how they’re always there, even when we can’t see them (this is incredibly reassuring to the kidlet). Or how sometimes, people try to make history fit the story they know, even when it doesn’t always work. If you were talking about Theseus and the Minotaur, you could spend a moment or two on how Ariadne thinks about the problem of the maze; in Daedalus and Icarus, you could talk about the sun and the wax, or how Daedalus’ design is supposed to work.
Myths That Work Well
- All the labors of Heracles
- Theseus and the Minotaur
- Perseus and Andromeda
- The Pleaides
- Orion and the scorpion
- Parts of the Odyssey
- Parts of Jason and the Argonauts
- Kronos and Titans; how Zeus came to rule over the gods
- The story of Atalanta