Reading Myths with Kids

What is Myth?

The great myths can teach us many things, for in them we find history and geography and astronomy and world origins.  But most of all we find the struggles of human beings, including all the passions and frailties that are to be found in humans today.  We are connected to these ancient civilizations in Greece and Rome by some words in our language, to be sure, but we are even more directly connected to them by these myths, for it is in these tales that we see ourselves.  Oh, we understand now why the seasons change and we know that lightning bolts aren’t thrown by Zeus, but we still use ideas like “luck” and “UFOs” to help us explain what we can’t otherwise understand.  We struggle, just as the ancients did, to know where we fin on this planet and how we should conduct our lives, and we wonder on occasion, just as they did, whether (or not) our lives and actions are all part of some grand plan.

When earlier civilizations struggle with these problems, they wrote stories to help them see their world and their place in that world more clearly.  The Greeks had a word for it, all right; to them, the word for “story” was mythos.

~William F. Russell[1]

Mythology is the repository of a culture’s collective consciousness. From the mythology of the Greeks to the New Testament mythos of Jesus as Christ, to the films of George Lucas or the books of J. K. Rowling, myth is a social commentary of the human condition in its time and place—its values, its virtues and vices, its dreams and fears—that still speak to us today because they espouse our values, our virtues and vices, and our dreams and fears.  While the stories themselves range from just-so stories and moral tales to the history of our origins and the legends of our gods and heroes, the real importance of myth comes from their truth—not a truth of a listing of facts and events, but a deeper truth of the content and condition the human psyche (a truth that is just as often uncomfortable and unpleasant to face as not).

Other discussions of myth:

So Then, Why Myths for kids?

These myths have survived through the centuries because they have had something important to say, and because people of widely disparate ages and cultures have found in these tales lessons and inspiration for their own lives.

~William F. Russell[1]

Kids need stories.  So do grown-ups.  We need lots of stories—story upon story upon story.  We need mythical and factual stories, stories larger than life and of life itself, stories to anchor us as part of the greater story of humanity and the cosmos.  Stories teach us to care about the ending of the story.  Great stories dare us to care about great endings.  And when we send our children into the world, they need to see themselves as part of a great story, and they need to dare to care about creating infinite great endings.  Certainly there are practical reasons for kids to know mythology (which I’m getting to), but really, the most important reason is that mythology is our story—the common repository of our collective consciousness for all cultures, that unites us as a species.

Now those practical reasons for reading myths with kids are pretty compelling as well–the first being that mythic references are part of basic cultural literacy.  William F. Russel (whom I have quoted extensively in this post) tells a pretty humorous story in the introduction of his book, Classic Myths to Read Aloud, of two college students (apparently with the goal of being teachers, if the author’s observation of them getting off the bus an heading into the building where the Education Department classes is any indication) on the bus trying to decipher what a reference to “the wooden horse of Troy” meant…the parting comment overheard by the author was “And who in the world is this guy Troy, anyway?”  And yet, from this one myth, we not only get aforementioned Trojan horse, but the “face that launched a thousand ships”, the famed Achilles heel (which corresponds quite nicely to the Achilles tendon in one’s ankle), even the fabled city of legend itself (and one of the biggest archeological hunts in history)…just to name a few commonly recurring themes.  Quite simply, myth echoes through the literary images and conventions of our culture, and even our language itself.

Another reason is that myths bridge into other subjects, and can act as a mental “hook” for information and helps expand (and anchor) one’s web of knowledge.  I’ve already pointed out the link between myth and literacy, and the connection between ancient history and myth is quite obvious (and history is an incredibly important subject for teaching kids about their place within humanity as a whole, as science is for their place in the cosmos), but myth also connects with the sciences and engineering (some of the earliest feats of both were to bring life to myth), with the arts and music, and with politics and governments (which are often connected to or influenced by religious beliefs).


Which Myths?  And How to Use Them?

Children will find their feelings stirred as well as their imaginations. Indeed, there is an abundance of sorrows and tragedy in these ancient stories, and you as the reader must take care that the selection you choose is appropriate for the current mood of your youthful listener.  But just because a story is sad or includes a tragic scene does not mean that it is, therefore, inappropriate for all children at all times.  Sad moments are part of a child’s life, just as they are part of an adult’s.  Our children need to see and understand that they are not the only ones who feel the sting of sorrow or who suffer misfortunes.  Indeed, there are countless tragedies and difficulties in a young life that can be soothed and understood better when they are shown to be similar to the hardships or the dilemmas that faced a mythical character whom the child has come to know and, perhaps, admire.

~William F. Russell[1]

Obviously there are some things to consider when choosing the myths to read to your children.  Things like age and maturity level, reading and/or listening comprehension level, your (and their) comfort level in discussing sensitive topics (like sex, violence, etc); all will factor in which myths to use and how to approach them.  For example, topics like the rape of Europa by Zeus or of Lot by his daughters isn’t considered age appropriate reading in our home (nor, would I guess, in the home of most persons with small children).  But the story of Poseidon and Athena in the founding of Athens is not only a great story, but a great introduction into the world of ancient Greece (or even the geography of modern Greece), to an introduction of democracy and its importance, or to perhaps open a discussion of the role of the horse in the history of civilization (or even a discussion of domestication and evolution).

Where you start in choosing mythology to read with your children largely depends on your goals for their education and your needs as a family.  If you follow a particular tradition or pantheon, you might decide to start there.  If you take a more universal (and/or eclectic) approach, something like a collections of creations stories from culture or an anthology with profiles of various gods and goddesses might be a better introduction.  Because we are homeschooling with a somewhat modified classical approach**, our coverage of mythology will coincide with our discussion of various ancient cultures in an age appropriate and expanding manner, but for now is limited to the more universal and eclectic introduction to the personalities and stories of myths from around the world.  For us, this includes different variations of stories from Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, and Norse mythology, as well as stories from the Bible and popular fairy tales and folktales incorporated into our picture book collection, coloring pages, story time and bedtime readings.

**Classical homeschooling as espoused in The Well-Trained Mind uses the trivium approach and repeats coverage of history in four segments at three levels of increasing complexity and understanding.  Ancient history is covered in the 1st, 5th and 9th grades/years.  Literature for school work is, in part, chosen in correlation with historical themes (either about or from the time period in question).  It’s probably a topic that will earn its own post, but with some variation (more emphasis on scientific literacy, experiential education, and modern cultural literacy to start with), it is the main method that we have chosen to use with our children (and the schedule and references in The Well-Trained Mind is quite handy).

Some Thoughts on the Bible as Myth:

Now, I’m not terribly sure if I have (m)any Christian readers (aside from my mom), but the inclusion of Biblical stories as mythology is often seen as offensive…and I’m pretty sure (having once considered myself Christian) that it comes from a limited (and false, IMO) notion of an exclusive nature of deity and spurious notions of religious and cultural superiority that have ensued over 2000 years of Christian-dominated culture.  To some (individuals and denominations), the Bible is somehow more than myth, its fact, and any assentation otherwise is often felt as a threat to that individual’s pride and/or faith.   So…I’m sorry if you are reading and somehow offended but, the simple fact in this case, is that the Bible is a social commentary of the human condition in its time and place—from the origins of the world and of man and the agreement between Abraham and his chosen deity, to tales about the ancient history of the Jewish people and the latter tales of one man’s rebellion against the intuitionalism of his faith (and how his followers chose to interpret his teachings).  Simply put, the Bible is as much a myth as the Iliad and the Odyssey, regardless of how much someone believes it to be otherwise (and, to be quite honest, I don’t really think that there is anything *more* than myth, not even “fact”, which I am also quite fond of—it’s a bit like comparing apples and zebras).

I think the mythic nature of the Bible is an important perspective to remember though, when parenting as a Pagan (and, even were we not Pagan) for two big reasons.  First of all, I think it is important to all of the world’s mythology on equal footing.  Not liking the attitudes and agendas of some Christians isn’t a good enough reason to indoctrinate your children against Abrahamic mythology (and, if you are Christian, not believing in anything outside of the Bible isn’t any reason to deny them basic literacy in ideas outside of their own traditions)…what is the story of Harry Potter versus a goliath of evil like Voldemort, if not a seven part retelling of David’s legendary battle with the giant Goliath?

Everyone needs a reason to believe that good, even when less powerful, can triumph over evil–or there wouldn’t be much point to resisting anything that looked poised to beat you. And, the more they know about the basis of belief of others, the more easily they can determine their own truth about its validity (or not) for themselves, and defend their own beliefs.  Secondly, I think it is important because kids need a reference point for why other people believe differently from how they are being taught…and it keeps them from being hurtful and cruel on the subject of religious differences.  Around the age of three and four, kids *get* pretend, and if you handle it well, they even get that pretend can still have meaning.  It is by no means a mental leap for Chickadee to get that the stories of Baby Jesus and the Baby Sun King have meaning (and sort of an analogous one) and are important, and that it would be rude for her to tell her friends that believe in the story of Baby Jesus that they are somehow wrong just because she hears a different story more often.  The knowledge that all myth is equal is pretty much a good offense and a good defense for one’s personal beliefs (IMO, regardless of the belief).


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