Battling siblings, a jealous mother, a fickle father and grudge-bearing family members – no, I’m not describing my last family get-together, but Richard P. Martin’s Myths of the Ancient Greeks. Martin writes like a gossip columnist, and in doing so he makes history come alive. If you ever wondered where soap opera writers get their ideas, look no further than Greek mythology. Martin has managed to turn a few thousand years of Greek mythology into a fun and easy read. A family tree of Greek gods is included for those of us who are genealogically challenged. Considering the frequency with which the inhabitants of Mt. Olympus dallied with us mere mortals, Martin should have designed a set of “official player’s” cards depicting the ancient deities and their numerous progeny. A randy bunch, those gods and demi-gods.
But why would anyone want to read about ancient history? Well, since Hollywood has set its box-office sights on Troy the average movie-goer will need some background information to fully appreciate the big screen odyssey. Once you have breezed through this book, you’ll see that the old saw “there are no new ideas” rings true. You’ll see that Shakespeare himself shamelessly lifted plot and characters from Greek myths ("Titus Andronicus" seems to have been heavily borrowed from Prokne, Which led me to discover that even the average detective story is not above reaching back a few thousand years for a good story).
The book jacket states that Martin writes in elegant prose. You be the judge: “Immediately, she burned with love, her heart flaring up just like a fire that a working woman feeds with tinder before dawn when she gets up early to work, and keeps blazing in her hearth as she spins her wool.” I confess that was the worst sentence I came across, but it made me laugh. Martin has an easygoing conversational style, but reading Apollo or Athena speaking in modern day English seemed a bit off. Martin has a gift for making these stories understandable. No mean feat, considering he’s translating the works from ancient Greek and Latin.
The only time he sounds like an academic is when he relates the story of Troy, and that doesn’t happen until the last chapter.
Don’t let the topic scare you; this book reads like a celebrity tell-all. Each chapter has more scandals and feuds than the Royal Family, and more inflated egos than an Oscar Party. I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. Professors have a talent for making history as exiting as watching grass grow, but not Martin. He combines archeological facts to back up the myths. He saves the best for last: the Trojan War and the myth of Troy (coming soon to a movie theatre near you). It was always assumed that the City of Troy and its characters, Helen, Paris and Achilles were all myths – until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its location in 1870. And for those of us who grew up watching Hercules cartoons, you’ll be pleased to read the real story of Herakles. Also, if you’re a fan of the Matrix trilogy, you’ll gain insight into its philosophy and its characters Orpheus and Persephone.
Myths of the Ancient Greeks is worth the read, but the illustrations are unnecessary as they are untitled and lacking in description -- you’ll have to use your imagination to figure out which characters are being depicted. I give it 2 ½ stars.