Myth and Fingerprints

I was thinking recently about my school library in 3rd grade.

Not sure why. It could’ve been the recent news reports on libraries without books — without physical books, anyway; rather, they’re community spaces with computers where users can surf the Internet and check out E-books — that got me remembering how I’d settle down in the stacks in front of the encyclopedias and basically use the references in the article at hand like we use hyperlinks online today.

I have several fond memories, general and specific, of libraries. One suspects many readers do. Those I’ve shared on the blog before include — nestled in a post on TV’s Supernatural — memories of my favorite aisle in this particular library. What brought me to that aisle was books on Greek and Roman mythology, a subject I read about voraciously and to an almost literally exhausting degree. Based on periodic scans of various library and bookstore shelves, I may well have gone through every relevant volume in print. Some books were, from my youthful perspective at least, stuffier than others, a category in which I preferred Edith Hamilton’s Mythology to Bulfinch’s. There were plenty of slim paperbacks and large, illustrated tomes aimed more directly at my age, too, with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths atop the heap of the latter.

One element of that last book I appreciated was the family tree depicting the Titans
who preceded the familiar gods of Olympus. Distinctions between the Olympians, largely the children of Titan king Cronus and queen Rhea, and other offspring of the Titans, who like Hyperion and Thea’s son Helios were still called Titans, fascinated and confused me. At times Helios seemed interchangeable with Hyperion rather than being his son, and the Olympian Apollo (god of music, etc.) apparently took Helios’ place as the deity who rode the chariot across the sky as generations went on, and Apollo was also known as Phoebus, while his twin sister Artemis (goddess of the hunt, etc.) was also known as Phoebe, but Phoebe was also the name of the Titan associated with the moon’s own chariot before Artemis, and the Titan Selene was also the goddess of the moon like her brother and/or cousin Helios was of the sun, and of course in Roman myth Artemis was known as Diana, whereas Apollo remained Apollo or Phoebus or maybe Phoebus Apollo, and by the way Artemis might have been a deity from another culture superimposed onto and/or subsumed by the equivalent Greek icon as often happened when Greek influence spread via trade and language and conquest.

Since the publishing mythologies of the superhero comics I read were likewise patchwork — with earlier stories frequently differentiated by editors, in retrospect, as belonging to various parallel universes, and certain irreconcilable quirks even waved away as errors in transcription by the writers of our own universe who, I kid you not, were in the comics themselves described as tuning into the colorful exploits of would-be fictional characters in other dimensions through their dreams — I understood how the tales told by the Greeks and Romans and other cultures they’d conquered could wind up a melange. You play telephone across the miles and over the years, or just come up with a better story, and the newer version wins. I still longed for a definitive record of those changes, however, the way DC’s Nelson Bridwell would offer up a comparative list of differences between the Earth-One and Earth-Two incarnations of Superman, and, even though the myths were by the present day firmly regarded as myths rather than religious beliefs or simply useful allegories for natural phenomena, I wanted an official record of the Olympian pantheon.

I think it’s that impetus which brought me to the encyclopedias at my school library; after all, if they could tell me the current population, altitude, and state flag of Arkansas and everything I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, they could surely provide the definitive scoop on Aphrodite. Looking up Hera or Poseidon, I’d see the names of their Roman counterparts and be directed to entries of other gods or demigods or legends to find out more. It would not be unusual to discover me at 8 years old resting on that library floor with X-Y-Z open to the Zeus entry while the H in my hands had a piece of paper marking the page for Hercules — or perhaps Herakles — that Zeus had suggested as further reading because I’d turned to the entry for Hydra later in that same volume. The Internet before we had the Internet, like I said.

My younger self would be astounded by the possibilities of the actual Internet, of course, not least as a repository of superhero, comics, and television lore nor a way to converse with like-minded readers, fans, and scholars. He might be surprised to find that I’ve never used it to delve deeper into Greek mythology, though. I’m still enamored of the subject — and I’ve expanded my autodidacticism to explorations of other cultures’ mythologies as well as modern uses of such concepts in fiction — yet I long ago hit a bit of a saturation point in terms of reading anything that could tell me something new, as the stories got repetitive and I realized that there was honestly no definitive scoop to be had.

Related: A, Plus 42 Is Me Shelf Obsession Ebert, &c. Gods and Monsters


  1. I'd settle down in the stacks in front of the encyclopedias and basically use the references in the article at hand the way we use hyperlinks online today.

    Yes! I was a mythology buff too, as you know. And I've kind-of let it slide as well. It's not just the encyclopedias that were "hyperlinks" either, although the way one entry would refer to another in set-apart, underlined text was surely an influence on Tim Berners-Lee or whomever. Later in college and beyond I would be there in the stacks researching Shakespeare or law or whatever, one book open to the citations with another book crammed in to hold its place while I sought out yet another book in the same aisle. I really hope that younger generations have to do that, get back amongst all that old paper, no matter how great a tool the Internet is.

  2. I recall doing exactly that with the Shakespeare crit in college. Plus bouncing around the stacks (figuratively) when distracted by nearby subjects the same way one gets lost in the magpie warrens of the Interwebs. I'd planned to write more about that sort of thing but I got caught up in the mythology stuff and just let it slide.

  3. Some books were, from my youthful perspective at least, stuffier than others, a category in which I preferred Edith Hamilton's Mythology to Bulfinch's

    I knew there was a reason I liked you. :)

    Hamilton's Mythology is probably one of my all time favorite books, and certainly my favorite of the countless Greek/Roman mythology books I devoured repeatedly as a kid. D'Aulaires' book is up there too, that that always seemed liked a slightly different animal than Hamilton's, almost (to me) a prototypical graphic novel (did you know there is also a D'Aulaires book on Norse mythology?).

    There has to be some connection between kids who got into mythology (any mythology) then went on the read comics, right? Because as you point out, they're fantastically similar, and I can draw a direct line from my love of one to the other.

    While I'm still enamored of the subject ... I long ago hit a bit of a saturation point in terms of reading anything that could tell me something new, as the stories got repetitive and I realized that there was really no definitive scoop to be had

    Right there with you again.

    I was a kid who read the encyclopedias and still remembers favorite aisles of the library. I even remember being mad I couldn't check out the encyclopedias and take them home, though of course now I realize why that was.

    As a testament to how ingrained the internet has become, what freaks me out a little now is when I'm reading a book, sometimes even fiction, and I come across something I want to know more about. For a brief moment, I *almost* reach out to "click" on a word, hoping it will take me to the page that talks about that subject/character, before I remind myself I'm reading a book and that books don't work like the internet. :P


  4. I'd put Hamilton and the D'Aulaires on about equal standing as favorites in very different ways. Although given how long it's been since I read either, short of flipping through a copy of the latter when getting one for my cousin's kid a few years ago, I suspect I'd give Hamilton's Mythology the edge as an adult purely in terms of edification if not entertainment just for the frequent quotes from epic poetry and other classical literature.

    Yeah, I read the D'Aulaires book on Norse mythology, too. My interest in Greek/Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythology got a jump start around the time I got into Dungeons & Dragons in middle school thanks to the Deities & Demigods book.

    For me reading books on mythology sprang from reading comics instead of the reverse. I'm not sure whether my parents or a teacher suggested it as a natural entry to non-picture prose or if I took the initiative based on mythology elements of Thor, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Hawkman, and so on. I suspect it was some combination, maybe a grown-up recommending books on mythology after hearing me explain superheroes' origins in exhaustive, excited detail because I would do that kind of thing.


  5. I'm not sure I've ever nearly clicked a word in a book, but I still remember the first time — it's gotta be over 15 years ago now — that I tapped the page of a legal pad I was writing on with my left thumb and ring finger, instinctively, to "save" the document.