The Key to All Mythologies

Many years ago I went to a reading at the New York Public Library by the winners of the National Book Awards: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. It was E. Annie Proulx, Gore Vidal, and A. R. Ammons (a motley crew). Proulx and Ammons read from their work, but Vidal just sort of…talked. And talked. And talked. He was smart and funny, a bit crazy, and very wide-ranging. It was not like reading Myra Breckenridge.

One of the things he said was that the way to avoid all the culture debates (it was at the tail end of a particularly bloody phase of the culture wars, with lots of angst about political correctness etc.) was to teach kids world history and let the culture come from that. You would start in Mesopotamia or whatever, then follow along with ancient Asian cultures, and move on through time, teaching history—and, I guess, whatever fiction/poetry/plays/writings along the way.

Like most extremely large ideas, it got a bit hazy if you looked at it closely. It was really more a gesture towards an idea than an actual fully articulated idea (with thanks to the brilliant Emily Fisher for that distinction). Whose record of history would you believe, for instance? And what would you do about history that moved across cultures, or about cultures without a written history or culture of their own?

But there was something really great about it, too. I was thinking of this when Diana started to get heavily into mythology. I mean, way past D'Aulaires, into Edith Hamilton, into this:


And books of Egyptian mythology, and a really kick-ass set of cartoon books about the sacred Hindu Gods. She's gotten so well-versed that I can ask her, "Is Christianity the only religion that has a God-who-dies story?" and she can come back with, "Well, there's an Egyptian God who dies and and is cut up into a million little pieces. Hmm, let me think," and I get to have one of those moments when you're having a truly fascinating conversation with your kid, rather than trying to follow the arcana of the Sinoh region without crying (be grateful if you don't get this reference). Besides, the stories are amazing and interesting, it's not exactly fiction for
those kids who hate novels, and it's really crazy and grisly and
shocking—who doesn't love that?

And I think it's important in other ways, too. It gives you a real sense that there are other places in this world, places where they have their own stories. And maybe (I know this won't really work because life isn't quite how it should be) if kids grow up having a sense of a larger world in which they are one small piece, they won't freak out in panic over other people's religion's and places of worship and…you know.

Maybe? But then that would mean Gore Vidal was right. Which is sort of too strange to contemplate.

Any wonderful mythology books you have to recommend? Put them in the comments.

5 thoughts on “The Key to All Mythologies

  1. I had Enchantment Tales for Children by Margaret Evans Price, which filled me with lifelong adoration not only for Greek myths but also for the Art Nouveau esthetic. Truly lovely illustrations. (I think Andrew Lange played a part too–the Brown Fairy Book was my first fairytale book at age 6, and it has a Bunyip and some old-school and disturbing Oriental tales and all kinds of multicultural mythic content.)


  2. re: “And books of Egyptian mythology, and a really kick-ass set of cartoon books about the sacred Hindu Gods.”
    What books are these, may I ask, since they sound great?
    (I’ve got a kid who could really use an accessible book of Egyptian myths & was heartbroken when the D’Aulaire’s hadn’t done one.)


  3. Thank you! All your-all’s (if only accents had a typeface) recommendations are so helpful–thanks for being out here in the internets. We’re the better for your blog.


  4. What great ideas. I’ve always been nervous about fairy tales, because my oldest is quite sensitive, especially about violence, and the fairy tale choices seem to be the overly-sanitizied modern Little Mermaid variety, or else the original Cinderella’s-wicked-stepsisters-get-bits-of-their-feet-hacked-off kind. But after reading a few of the original, scarier kind, he’s been more intrigued than I’d expected, plus he loved the Egypt unit in school. I should really track down some of these books and give him a taste of these wonderful stories from around the world!


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