Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Greek Mythology for Kids – A Lesson and a Story

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a Greek school teacher at the Toronto District School Board to come to her Saturday morning Greek language class to teach her kindergarten and grade one students about Greek Mythology.

At first I thought “Wow! Sure! That’ll be great.”

Then I started thinking about it. “Uh oh!”

I had no idea what I was going to talk about. The teacher knew I was an author and said she wanted me to tell a story.

Ok. But which story? Most of the stories in Greek Mythology, let’s face it, involve brutal killing, rapine, incest, and revenge.

Not really tales for the kiddies!

Oh dear…

I began flipping through some kids’ books from the public library and my own collection, serching for something that would work.

I knew I wanted to incorporate a little history lesson first. I mean, hey, I always try and get in the history! So, for that I thought I would try and get them to name the 12 Olympian Gods of ancient Greece. That would be fun.

When it came to the story, I decided on one that was clean, fun, and short. I also wanted one that involved names they might know.

I decided on the story of Athena and Poseidon’s contest for patronage of the city of Athens.
Phew. What a relief!

Now, I won’t lie. I was nervous. Yes, yes, I know. But their just kids!

True. But I’ve taught history to kids at museums and other places in previous jobs, and let me tell you, kids do not mince their words.

“This is BORING!” or “When’s snack time?” are common phrases that some kid in any given group will inevitably call out, no matter how exciting the subject.

Whether I still wanted to do it or not, Saturday arrived and I set off for the school. I had shaved, so as not to look scary, and I wore blue because it is soothing and chills people out. One hopes.

This was my strategy:

·      Do a small intro
·      Ask them to name ancient Greek gods they know until we hit all twelve
·      Tell them the story in animated fashion, using the chalk board to draw pictures
·      Have them work on the fantastic colouring sheets I had found of Athena and Poseidon

I’m happy to say, it all went well. At first the kids were like “Who is this stranger person standing at the back of the room?” But once I started talking about the gods and goddesses whose names were familiar, they began to warm to me. Referring to Disney’s Hercules certainly jogged their memories!

I was going to find my way! I was going to go the distance! Erm, sorry…

Anyway, if they didn’t know the names of a particular god, they certainly related to the trait of that god. Hestia may have been strange to them, but they could certainly understand her as Goddess of the Family (hearth).

So, we got through that, and because there were a couple kids in the audience who were named after Greek gods, they were quite chuffed.

Then I got a “When’s it snack time?” question which the teacher quickly stomped out.

When I told them it was time for a story, they hushed up and bent forward.

Ah, the power of storytelling!

I had written a retelling of the story of the contest for Athens beforehand, but reading from the paper would not have done it. I had memorized it, and told it loud and clear, with sound effects (if you grew up playing with Star Wars toys (as I did), there are always sound effects!).

Their little faces beamed with wonder and I knew I was doing all right. Thank you, Muses!

They even loved my rubbish drawings of the Acropolis, Poseidon’s trident, and Athena’s olive tree as I told the story.

Afterward, I passed around a book from the library on the Parthenon so that they could see the temple that was built on the Acropolis so very long after the events of that story, in honour of the winner of the contest, Athena Parthenos. They loved the visual!

When I mentioned colouring sheets, they all cheered, each wanting to colour both of the gods who were in the story.

I had to run down the hall to make more photocopies!

When the class was finished all the children smiled and thanked me, ‘Kyrios Adam Alexandros’, for coming and talking to them about Greek mythology. A few of the kids were indeed going to Greece this summer and said that they were going to tell their parents the story at dinner that day.

In my few experiences teaching children about history, whatever the period, it has always been a joy to have even a couple children leave the lesson happy, intrigued, and wanting more information. They’re small, but they’re like sponges, and if you teach it in an exciting way, you will reach them.

On this occasion, almost all the children, even the very quiet ones, left happy and excited, eager to show their parents their colouring sheets of Athena and Poseidon.

I needn’t have worried.

The tales of Greek mythology are indeed bloody and explicit, but there are some that can be related safely to a younger audience. There are also many kids’ books that contain tamed-down versions of the stories. One of my favourites is Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths by Lucy Coats and Anthony Lewis.

So, this summer, if you’re looking to entertain your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, with some stories from ancient Greece, don’t be afraid. Give it a go!

If you like, you can use my full retelling of the Contest for Athens story which I’ve put at the bottom of this post.

You’ll be amazed at how much these tales grab children’s attention. After all, they’ve done so for thousands of years!

Thank you for reading!

If you are interested in the ancient Greece colouring sheets, the best ones I found are at  They’re free!

Here are a few of the students' colouring pages that went up on the classroom wall:

Here is my retelling of The Contest for Athens:

The Contest for Athens (a story of Athena and Poseidon)

Once, a long, long time ago first king of Athens, King Cecrops (who was part man and part snake!) wanted to find a god who would be the protector of his beautiful city.

Two gods came forward to be the city’s protector: Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, the God of the Sea.

They almost fought over it, and just as they were about to attack each other, Athena, being the Goddess of Wisdom, suggested that they should hold a contest for the city. With King Cecrops as the judge, they set up the contest and decided that whoever gave the best gift to the city would win.

A huge crowd of people gathered with King Cecrops as the judge, and they went up to the Acropolis to present their gifts to the city.

Poseidon went first. He lifted his massive trident (three pointed spear) and struck the earth with it. Where the spear struck the ground, a spring of water gushed out of the rock. The people loved it, but as they went closer to taste the water, they discovered that it was salty. Don’t forget that Poseidon was ruler of the sea and the water he controlled was salty, just like the seas he ruled.

Then it was Athena’s turn. She quietly knelt on the rocky ground and buried something. Everyone watched. Everyone was silent. Then, a brilliant green shoot began to grow out of the rock. It grew, and grew, and branches and leaves appeared. It was an olive tree, full of beautiful silver-green leaves, and plump purple olives. The crowd gasped.

This turned out to be a much more useful gift. It gave the people of the city, not only the olives themselves as food, but also the olive oil for their lamps and for cooking their food, as well as the wood from the olive tree to build their boats and houses.

King Cecrops declared Athena the winner of the contest, and the protector of the city which became known as Athens, or in Greek, Athina.

Many, many years later, a Temple of Athena was built on the Acropolis. It is called the Parthenon. This temple had statues of the contest as decoration, and showed Poseidon with his trident, and Athena with her olive tree.


A few weeks ago, Eagles and Dragons offered free review copies of Children of Apollo, Killing the Hydra, and Immortui. 

I'm glad so many of you decided to take advantage of this Summer offer!

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Cheers and see you next week!

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Timelessness of Arthurian Tales

A couple of years ago, I wrote about a new series I had started watching called MERLIN.

As I said then, I was shocked by what I perceived as the ridiculous aspects of the show and how much they had changed the Arthurian cycle. However, after the first few episodes of the show I began to see its qualities and the wonderful ways in which it revived the Arthurian legend for a new generation.

This past weekend, I finished watching the fifth and final season of this BBC Series.

I’m actually a little sad that the series is done. I’m also surprised at how attached I became to many of the characters, especially the characters of Merlin and Arthur whose bantering, odd, loyal relationship is the central theme and strength of the series.

We all know that Arthur dies in the end. Of course he does. But I found myself hoping that maybe, just maybe, Arthur would survive. I wanted him to! The series had changed so many other aspects of the legend, why not change that? End things on a positive, uplifting note, right?

No. The death of Arthur in story is something that is inevitable, even for a modern interpretation. It’s the death of Arthur that shows the essential elements of tragedy, sacrifice, and hope for the future that are so crucial to Arthurian tales.

In MERLIN, the actors Colin Morgan and Bradley James manage to pull off an emotional, gut-wrenching final episode that is, to me, a worthy addition to the Arthurian canon.

After watching that final episode, I found myself dealing with a familiar feeling of sadness and longing in the pit of my stomach. It’s something I always feel when I finish watching or reading the story of Arthur and his knights.

This experience reminded me why I love Arthurian stories so much, and why I will never tire of them.

I grew up with the stories of Arthur. In fact, they are a big part of the person I have become, the ideals I hold to be true and important. They speak to me on many levels. They are timeless.

Historically, those few decades straddling the 5th and 6th centuries A.D gave rise, in my opinion, to some of the most important and moving literature and literary traditions since Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Whether ‘Camelot’ was a late medieval castle, or a re-fortified Iron Age hill fort at South Cadbury doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant if the sword Excalibur rose out of the water in the hand of an ancient priestess or water nymph, or if it was cast as a solid piece of iron in a stone mould by a highly skilled smith.

What matters in the Arthurian cycle are the people, and the journeys that they take.

When I think about Arthurian legend, I think about a young boy facing his destiny, I think of lovers facing insurmountable odds, I think about brave and gifted people working to better the land they love.

When I think of these stories I think about ideals of chivalry that, real or imagined, are a bright light in a world that seems to be crumbling apart, pinioned as it is between the classical and early medieval worlds.

When I travelled to Glastonbury, Cadbury Castle, Birdoswald, Wroxeter, Dinas Emrys, Tintagel, or Caerleon, I wasn’t focussed so much on the archaeology and whether it supported the legends of those places.

What pulled me into those places, what grabbed my imagination and would not let go, were the stories and people associated with those places. Therein lies the true magic.

I’ll never forget the names of Balin and Balan, Eric and Enide, Sir Gawain and Sir Perceval, Tristan and Isolde, The Lady of Shalott, Lancelot, Guinevere, Uther, and Arthur, and so many more.

If my heart were a book shelf, there would be a scroll with a special space dedicated to every chapter of the Arthurian cycle.

I feel like I’ve watched the barge carrying Arthur’s body sail to Avalon countless times, and yet the cycle is always reborn inside of me, my mind, and my imagination.

Someday, when I’m ready, I’ll write my own version of the cycle in as historically accurate a way as possible. This has always been my goal.

But, even more so, I will write my own offering to the traditions in a way that the most inspiring aspects of the tales come to the fore.

It feels like an impossible task, but then, no quest is intended to be easy.

Thank you for reading.

Which are your favourite Arthurian tales? Share yours in the Comments box below!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The World of Killing the Hydra - Part III - Sarmatian Horse Warriors

It’s been a while since we last visited The World of Killing the Hydra.

I’ve been caught up in writing posts about Herakles and Jason and the Argonauts which, I’m happy to say, have been receiving a lot of great feedback.

The myths have great appeal, so I can see why those posts are so popular.

Today, in this third installment of The World of Killing the Hydra, we’re going to look at a group of warriors who also have ties to myth, and who, as a fighting force, became legendary in the Roman world.

I want to talk about the Sarmatians.

In Killing the Hydra, Lucius Metellus Anguis finds himself getting to know the men of the cavalry ala of Sarmatians who have been sent to join the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis, in Numidia.

Artist impression of Sarmatian Cavalry
The leader of this fighting force is Mar, a king of his people who led them against Rome in the wars with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Mar is joined by his royal nephew, Dagon, and both men play a key part in the story.

But who were the Sarmatians?

The average person has not heard about this group of warriors that came to form the elite heavy cavalry of the Roman Empire. Most people probably know of them only from the role they play in the movie King Arthur, with Clive Owen.

Researching Sarmatian warrior culture was a fascinating part of the research for Killing the Hydra.

The Sarmatians were a Scythian-speaking people from north of the Black Sea, and the high point of their civilization spanned from the 5th B.C. to the 4th century A.D. when they eventually went into decline because of pressure from the Huns and Goths.

Lance head of a Sarmatian 'contos', a 16 foot lance
The Sarmatians were a nomadic Steppe culture whose lands extended from the Black Sea to beyond the Volga in western Scythia.

Herodotus believed the Sarmatians (or ‘Sauromatae’) were descended from intermarriage between Scythian men and Amazon women, and that ever since the two peoples joined:

"the women of the Sauromatae have kept their old ways, riding to the hunt on horseback sometimes with, sometimes without, their men, taking part in war and wearing the same sort of clothes as men… They have a marriage law which forbids a girl to marry until she has killed an enemy in battle; some of their women, unable to fulfill this condition, grow old and die unmarried." 
(Herodotus, The Histories, Book IV)

Indeed Sarmatian grave discoveries have revealed armed women warriors, so it seems likely that such tales would easily have given rise to the Greek perception that the Sarmatians were descended from the Amazons, those beautiful and terrible daughters of Ares.

Amazons in Battle

In Killing the Hydra, Mar, in conversation with Lucius, relates to the young Roman how the women of their people also fought:

"The women of our land are brave souls. We do not lock them up before the hearths of our homes. They are free to ride with us and wield the sacred sword. Some are priestesses and others have been gifted by our gods with foresight. Sarmatian women are nobler than what your Latin word 'noble' implies."
(Mar, in Killing the Hydra)

And what of the men? Sarmatian men were fierce warriors and skilled horsemen, and according to the Roman writer Ammianus Marcellinus, they:

“...have very long spears and cuirasses made from smooth and polished pieces of horn, fastened like scales to linen shirts; most of their horses are made serviceable by gelding, in order that they may not at sight of mares become excited and run away, or when in ambush become unruly and betray their riders by loud neighing. And they run over very great distances, pursuing others or themselves turning their backs, being mounted on swift and obedient horses and leading one, or sometimes even two, to the end that an exchange may keep up the strength of their mounts and that their freshness may be renewed by alternate periods of rest.(Ammianus Marcelinus, Roman History, Book XVII)

Sarmatian Crown
 Sarmatian art and culture is also very rich.

Animal imagery was common in their artwork and often included such totem animals as dragons, griffins, eagles, sphinxes, snake women, and of course, horses. Often, these images were tattooed on their bodies.

The characters of Mar and Dagon are naturally curious about the dragon imagery on Lucius’ armour and weapons. They see it as a sign.

Also, if you remember the Sibyl’s prophecy from Children of Apollo, you will know that Lucius’ meeting with the Sarmatians is no coincidence.

The Sarmatians take their gods very seriously, but the one they most revered was their war god who was represented by the Sacred Sword.

Sarmatian Warriors on
Trajan's Column
The Sarmatians’ favourite trial of strength was single combat.

They believed that there was mystical power in battle, and when they defeated their enemies, it’s said they often took the heads, scalps, and beards of the vanquished, drinking blood from the skulls of the slain.

Ancient cultures often did have what we might perceive as barbaric rituals, but it’s sometimes difficult to detect truth in the midst of Greek and Roman propaganda or storytelling.

The picture painted does make for a wonderfully colourful group of warriors.

Despite the tales of fighting women, magic swords, scalping, and the drinking of blood, there is one fact that remains certain – the Sarmatians were some of the best cavalry the world had ever seen.

They were sometimes known as ‘lizard people’ because of their scale armour which covered both the horse and rider almost completely.

The Sarmatians were heavy cataphracts, the shock troops that were used to ride down the enemy while wielding their long swords, and the contos, a lance of about five meters, or sixteen feet long.

Artist impression of a
Draconarius carrying a Draco 
The image that the Sarmatians are probably most known for, however, is the draconarius.

This was their war standard which they carried into battle. It consisted of a bronze dragon’s head with a long wind sock attached to it. It was held on a pole and carried at a gallop. When the wind passed through the draco, it made a loud howling sound that was to terrify the enemy.

The draco was adopted as a standard by all Roman cavalry in the 3rd century A.D.

It’s amazing that, as a highly disciplined fighting force, the Sarmatians remained active for as long as nine centuries.

When Marcus Aurelius won a decisive victory of the Sarmatians in A.D. 175, he obtained a force of heavy cavalry for Rome that would make the auxiliary forces much more of a force to be reckoned with.

Coin of Marcus Aurelius showing Sarmatian captives

As ever, the Romans knew a good thing when they saw it.

In the aftermath of Rome’s victory, Marcus Aurelius obtained 8000 heavy Sarmatian cataphracts which became the most skilled cavalry of the age.

It is these warriors, descended from the Amazons and mighty Scythians of the Steppes, who now step into The World of Killing the Hydra.

Mar, Dagon, and their warriors turn the tides of war against the nomads in Numidia, and become an important new force in the life of Lucius Metellus Anguis.

Draco standard

The Dragons are now in the thick of it with the Eagles of Rome.

Thank you for reading.