Title: Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes and Monsters
Publisher: National Geographic
Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Artist: Christina Balit
I confess: I am slightly obsessed with books on Greek mythology. I don’t remember how young I was when I first began to read them — so, probably since the day I could read. I devoured every picture book, prose text, dictionary, encyclopedia, textbook, art book, you name it, that I could find. After a while, when I realized that the same stories were just being repeated over and over again, I stopped buying Greek mythology books for their literary content and started buying them for their artwork instead.
Thus, it was the brilliant, bright cover of Treasury of Greek Mythology that first caught my eye. “Oooh, pretty!” I thought. Another art book to leisurely page through and drool over.
My first impression was not incorrect — just incomplete. Balit’s artwork is stunning. Each chapter is preceded by a full two-page spread of the Deity or hero being featured. Balit skillfully works the various attributes and icons of the Deity in question into the splash page; you can learn a lot about that God or Goddess just by studying the picture. For instance, the Poseidon page shows that God in a chariot-ship being pulled by gigantic green, gold and red seahorses; the waters through which they swim merge with the greenish-blue globe of Neptune in the background. Poseidon holds a trident in one hand, with another trident painted onto the prow of his chariot-ship. Similarly, the splash pages for Hades show that God — garbed in brilliant red and orange, stoic expression on His face — standing on the surface of Pluto, a Great gate stands behind him; above, Charon guides a small ship passed the moon of the same name, carrying the souls of the dead.
A lot of imagination and a heck of a lot of work went into creating those images, and the rest of the artwork for the book.
Happily, when I actually sat down to leisurely flip through the pages, I stopped long enough to read some of the text. And I kept reading. And reading. Napoli has done an amazing job of (re)imagining and (re)interpreting and (re)weaving the ancient tales for a modern audience. These are intense, passionate, lyrical, coherent tales, as colorful as the artwork which accompanies them. Consider the following sampling:
Hestia’s first memory was of blackness. And stifling heat. Then something tumbled in beside her, all wiggly. And another wiggly something. And two more. And finally, a giant lump. She was crowded, poke and prodded, cramped. And so breathlessly, unrelentingly hot. [….] Her brother Zeus had freed them, strange thing that he was, all tanned and muscular and accustomed to everything Hestia found so foreign. He freed them, only to tell them they must fight at his side against their father Cronus and his sister and brother Titans. Rocks, spears, axes. Shouts, cries, howls. Freed into a war? This was freedom? Was the world insane? Hestia cringed. [….] She climbed trees and peeked through their thick foliage, hoping for a glimpse of her mother Rhea, of the arms that had never cradled her, the hands that had never caressed her. (pp. 36-37)
Helios was born tireless and good-natured. He rose each day without fail and put on his golden helmet and yoked together his mighty stallions to a golden chariot that the god Hephaetus had made just for him. [….] Helios watched what happened to the other gods when he was present; they absorbed his heat, earth and water and air gods alike. They felt more expansive, more relaxed. They smiled more; they did small kindnesses for each other. Helios spread comfort. What a privilege! The realization made him stand taller. (pp. 108-109)
So, bottom line: beautifully-written, beautifully-illustrated, worth every penny. No fan of Greek mythology, no Hellenistai, should be without it.