Age appropriate definitions in Greek Myths


It was defining “virgin” and “rape” that got me thinking about this. If I recall, and I can’t check because I’m still in the boonies of Latin America, even D’Aulaire’s couldn’t avoid using that language, because there’s no pussyfooting around the fact that sex – mostly varying degrees of non-consensual sex – is at the root of a LOT of those stories. No Classical education is complete without the story of Persephone, for example, and there’s a ton more.

Diane and Callisto, by Peter Paul RubensWhen I – briefly – taught comparative (strong on the Greek angle) mythology to middle schoolers, I wasn’t allowed to bring in paintings by Peter Paul Rubens to show my class, but I didn’t even think about bringing up the subject of rape and virginity, of castration or infidelity. These things ARE Greek myths. And I assumed – though perhaps I shouldn’t have – that all of my students had a basic working understanding of these concepts.

My 9-year-old niece got D’Aulaire’s for Christmas last year, and so it surprised me that when I started retelling her some of the stories here she had to stop me to ask me “what’s a virgin?” and then later, “what’s rape?” I’m so friggin’ sex-ed-positive that it didn’t occur to me that the underlying question – “what’s sex?” – had not been answered yet.

I am secretly horrified that her introduction to these concepts came through such violent and patriarchal storytelling and I am (again) struck by the ever-presence of sex and violence in the world kids live in. It seems like an incredibly persuasive reason to start educating your kids about sex – and whatever positive values you can offer – from an early age. But given that I think Greek myths should ALSO be introduced at an early age, how can I address the sexual values contained therein? With my own children, I imagine that conversations about cultural conceptions of sex will be taking place as soon as they can understand them (I got that from my own feminist mother in an “age-appropriate” way from an early age, and that’s a good part of the reason that I started Women in Greek Myths), but what the heck do I do with kids that aren’t mine?

Any thoughts are very welcome.


4 responses to “Age appropriate definitions in Greek Myths”

  1. Well, I took the wussy approach and glossed over that with my kids. One of them loves mythology of any kind and is always asking me for stories and frequently I set into one not thinking it through and realizing I have something that is probably not appropriate to get into. So I usually just say something like “Poseidon was hugging and kissing on Medusa,” “Hades kidnapped Persephone,” or “She got pregnant.” I don’t know what he thinks is the process for getting pregnant. I like mythology for the stories and want him to like it too. For the last four years (he is eight now) he has not asked me to fill in the gaps. Hey, it’s mythology! You don’t need to know exactly how Heilos or Apollo hooks the sun to his chariot, how Vulcan makes those lightning bolts, how Aphrodite turned poor Arachne into a spider, or (I guess) how Medusa got pregnant. It just happens.

    There you go, the guy’s wussy version of mythology for children. Hey, there’s a book title in that…

  2. Ha! I totally know the feeling. Ironically, I think that the how-to details are much less relevant to kids than a basic understanding of the words. As you say, it just happens!

  3. Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  4. nice blog,thanks

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