Educating Young People About Myth: Interview with Author Tracey Barrett

One way to raise awareness of myths and enable people to benefit from them is to expose young people in junior high and high school to myths rather than wait until college. Classicist author Tracey Barrett has endeavored to do so in her new book, The Song of Orpheus, aimed at such a young audience. It tells 17 lesser-known Greek myths of interest rather than recycling the more famous ones, and includes a glossary and other helpful background information. I had the opportunity to interview her about her thinking behind this project, which is set out below. I hope my readers will find it interesting.

What do you consider generally to be the value of studying myths?

The main value of studying myths is the same as the main reason for reading anything: they’re enjoyable.

Greek myths can also shed a light on our own lives. These tales are close enough to our own experience to be understandable (well, usually—some are pretty puzzling!) but removed enough that they’re fresh and interesting. They can lead readers to question their assumptions about their own society from a distance, and gain a larger perspective on so many issues confronting us today. What is friendship? What is love? What are the most important qualities in a person? Can you be true to your society and true to yourself at the same time? Is it valid to say “all’s fair in love and war,” or should there be limits?

Why is it important that young people (e.g., in junior high or high school) learn about myths at that age, as opposed to waiting until college or later?

I think young people should be exposed to all kinds of art, including all kinds of literature, not just myths. They’ll find some genres/traditions more interesting than others and will stick with those that give them pleasure.

Why do you think so many children in our society grow up not learning much about myths? For example, is the dominance of our Judaeo-Christian culture a principal hindrance? Sensibilities about sex (because of the sexual content of many myths)? Generally, other than by writing books such as yours, how would you go about raising young people’s awareness and appreciation of myths?

I don’t know that I agree with that premise! When I do school visits, I often address all-school assemblies, not just small groups hand-picked because of an interest in the topic. I’ve yet to find a student who isn’t familiar (sometimes extremely familiar) with Greek myths. Look at the massive popularity of the Percy Jackson books!

The students I address are usually familiar with mythology of other cultures as well. And I live (and do most of my school visits) in the heart of the Bible Belt. If the Judaeo-Christian culture hasn’t impeded the study of myths here, I would doubt that it does so anywhere!

How did you go about selecting the particular lesser-known stories that you included in the book? What were your criteria?

First: They had to be interesting. I was amazed at the number of Greek myths that don’t really say anything, and just kind of peter out at the end. As I tell students in school visits, there’s often a good reason you’ve never heard of a particular myth, and this is one of the main ones!

Second: They had to be significantly different from the myths that are generally included in anthologies. I found many myths that were the same as a familiar one; for example, “A god falls in love with a girl and chases her. She flees, calling out for help, and is turned into something.” Once you’ve read Apollo and Daphne, you don’t also need Pan and Syrinx or any of the other myths with the same basic plot. I made sure that (while some motifs are repeated, as is inevitable) the stories themselves were not very similar to anything my readers would be likely to be familiar with.

Third: A bonus was a story that would lead a reader (young or old) to wonder about why we do things a certain way. For instance, most of us in the West are accustomed to people choosing their own spouses, whereas in many part of the world today, and in much of ancient Greece, parents (or someone else in authority) set up marriage for their children. Why do we do it this way? Is it necessarily better? Or, asking a goddess to reward your children for pious behavior turns out to mean that they’ll die in their sleep while they’re still young, strong, and beautiful. Why does that seem so horrifying today? Could it have seemed horrifying at the time? etc.

What specific benefits do you want young readers of your book to gain from your book, given your choice of myths included in the book?

The same benefits I want for any reader of any book. I don’t like overtly didactic books, and I don’t think readers do either. Of course, I hope they learn something, just as I hope I learn something when I read a book written for adults. I hope my readers learn something, grow as people, and are entertained.

Is it preferable that your book’s readers first familiarize themselves with some of the better-known Greek myths? Which books on the more famous Greek myths tailored to younger readers would you recommend for them?

While the intended audience for The Song of Orpheus is a reader who is already familiar with Greek myths, I made sure that even a novice will be able to enjoy it. There’s a glossary of all the characters (human, divine, in-between) and places mentioned in the book. In order not to bore someone who already knows who Zeus is (for example), I included at least one fact in each glossary entry that I’m pretty sure the average Greek-myth fan wouldn’t know.

There’s also at least one informational sidebar with each myth. I didn’t want to interrupt the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for a reader to get immersed in a story, but I found many fascinating facts while doing my (extensive!) research that didn’t fit into a myth and hated to omit them. Sidebars seemed to me a good way to get these facts in the book.

I loved D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths when I was young, and I still do. I still mentally picture the deities and settings the way they’re portrayed in that book. For the slightly older reader, Donna Jo Napoli’s Treasury of Greek Mythology (National Geographic, 2011) is wonderful.

Was it your idea that your book could be used in school courses? If so, how would you recommend teaching the material? For example, how should teachers lead discussions of the myths? What kinds of questions should be asked? How should the students be tested?

Given the realities of school testing and scheduling, I doubt that The Song of Orpheus is well suited to regular coursework. I imagine it will be more used for pleasure reading or as a supplement to an ancient civilization curriculum—for doing reports, for example.

I’m not a teacher, so I don’t want to tell those highly-trained professionals how they should use the book. I do know, however, that teachers and librarians are overworked and might not have the time to come up with activities, quizzes, etc., so I’m trying to provide some supplemental materials on the “For Teachers” page of my website. I’m afraid I haven’t done as much with that as I’d have liked—shortly after Orpheus came out, I got contracts for four books with two different publishers, and I’ve been crazy busy!

In your book you give much attention to the Greek language, including the meanings of the names. Until about a century ago, some knowledge of Greek and Latin was a hallmark of an educated person, and so they were widely taught in curricula. Do you think there should be a renewed emphasis on this? It seems that you may be endeavoring to stimulate it.

I was a Classics major in college and loved learning Greek and Latin. I know, however, that it’s not for everyone. Language geeks will probably enjoy that appendix, and others might have fun using the Greek alphabet as a “secret code.” Of course, though, if any of my readers became inspired to study Greek or linguistics, I’d be thrilled!

What bodies of myths from other ancient cultures would be important for people (both young and old) to become familiar with?

Any and all. That sounds flippant, but there’s something enjoyable plus something to be learned in any culture’s mythology.

Norse mythology and Egyptian mythology both have a lot of fans among my readers. Personally, I’m most interested in the mythologies of civilizations around the Mediterranean (Greek, Egyptian, the little that’s known about Etruscan mythology, Cretan, etc.), but many African, Asian, and Western Hemisphere myths are enthralling. I wish I had the time to read from every culture!

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