The Real Olympians

The Greek epics — The Iliad and The Odyssey — are about Greek legends, religion and culture and have a stark similarity with our very own Indian epics — The Mahabharata and The Ramayana

Published: 24th March 2014 11:50 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th March 2014 11:50 AM   |  A+A-


Maybe you’ve watched the Percy Jackson movie, or read the books. They’re about an American teenager who finds out that his father is Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea. He is yanked out of his everyday high schooler’s life into an epic world of Greek gods and goddesses, monsters and demi-gods. It’s no wonder these stories are so popular — after all they draw on one of the most enduring group of stories mankind has ever told, the myths and legends of the Greek gods.

These stories are many and varied, but the two most famous ones are two epic tales of war and adventure: The Iliad and The Odyssey. They can be compared to our own great epics in a lot of ways. The Iliad is a panoramic tale of a mighty war, much like The Mahabharata. The Odyssey, on the other hand, focuses more on one man and his adventures, like The Ramayana. Like our great epics, these texts were not just great stories but important parts of the culture and religion of the people who told these tales — the Greeks.

When we talk about the ancient Greeks, we mean the people who lived in the Grecian Isles from around 800 BC to AD 600. The Grecian Isles are a group of islands in the Mediterranean Sea, between Europe and Africa. The Greeks, like the Hindus, worshipped many gods. In fact, there are several ‘generations’ of gods in their myths. First came the primordial beings, including Gaia, the Earth and Uranus, the sky. Gaia and Uranus’ children were the Titans; the eldest Titan, Cronus, overthrew his father and the Titans became the rulers of creation. But Cronus’s own son, Zeus would confront Uranus in turn, hurling the Titans down to Tartarus, the abyss. This began the reign of the Olympian gods, so-called because they were said to reside atop Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain known to the ancient Greeks.

Like the Hindu pantheon, the Greek gods are a numerous and varied lot. What’s more, they often squabble among themselves and this leads to strife in the human world. Many of the scenes in the Iliad and Odyssey show us the divine plots underlying human destinies. But Greek legends include tales of half-human children of gods and human beings: the thrilling tasks of Hercules and other characters like Aeneas, Achilles (whom we see in the Iliad), Orpheus the poet and many more.

Many of the figures in Hindu myth are demigods too, like Arjuna whose father was Indra, and Hanuman whose father is said to have been Vayu. In short, Greek myth is another vast and exciting storehouse of storytelling.

So where do you get started reading the thrilling stories of the Greek myths yourself?

There are many, many books on these myths for various ages available in the market, but I would suggest you start with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wonderful retellings, A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. Hawthorne gives you all the drama and fascination of these age-old tales, with the added charm of having them retold by a writer who was himself a great storyteller. Once you’re a little more familiar with these stories, you could try some retellings of the epics. Penguin Classics has translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey by E V Rieu, which are told in clear, crisp English prose without losing any of the details of the original stories. As a matter of fact, Rieu’s translations are the books that launched the Penguin Classics imprint.

If you’re ready to tackle something closer to the original, without of course learning ancient Greek yourself, Penguin has also published Robert Fagles’s brilliant, poetic translations of these two books.

Going beyond the epics, there are again so many versions to choose from that it can be bewildering. Just remember that the Greek myths have lasted so long because, like all great stories, they still make sense to us, we can still relate to them.

So don’t be intimidated by the choices or by trying to read the most scholarly version you can find — dig around, find a version that appeals to you, even if it is not one of the suggestions above, and dive in!


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