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Greek myths at bedtime - they're part of our dreaming

By Emily Matters - posted Monday, 28 June 2004

In the present enthusiasm for the Olympics, it seems reasonable to reflect on the fact that the whole world accepts this ancient Greek concept as a Good Thing. The Greeks invented competitive sport, initially as training for war, then as a substitute for it, and gave to athletic prowess the heroic image it still has today – especially in Australia.

Our schools are imbued through and through with the gifts of the Greeks: not only sport but almost every aspect of the curriculum owes its place to the concepts they initiated and developed. In Mathematics, we all remember Pythagoras, that founder of a strange cult that avoided eating beans. Scientists apply the techniques of observation and deduction and the sheer curiosity about natural laws shown by Thales, Empedocles, Hippocrates the doctor, Archimedes and countless others. “History” and “geography” are both Greek words; the former means “research”, the latter, “earth-drawing”.  Music and drama in the forms most familiar to us developed from the culture of the Greek city-state. And as for literature, most of it can be traced back to Homer.

Many critics of the current movie Troy have complained about the changes made to the Homeric story. What has not been widely acknowledged is how true the film is to concepts we have taken from Homer and made so much part of our thinking that we don’t realise their origin. I refer to the concept of the violent action-hero with complex motives, the duel-to-death of the main antagonists, the view of war as simultaneously tragic and heroic, the conflicting attractions of brief glory or dull longevity, the destructive effects of unlawful passion - in fact, many of the ingredients of modern fiction and modern film are derived from the Iliad of Homer. The same poet’s Odyssey gives us the archetypal story of the resourceful wanderer trying to reach his goal through many colourful adventures; it even features that staple of cinema narrative, the flashback


The ancient Greeks were a fragmented people. They shared a language and a religion but not a political structure: all their towns and cities were self-governing and often at war with each other. Alexander the Great ( the subject of more movies in the pipeline) united the Greek world by conquest and founded Greek-speaking communities all over the eastern Mediterranean, but it was left to the rich, well-organised, imperialistic Romans to spread the legacy of Greek culture so efficiently that it became part and parcel of being European.

What used to be European culture is now international. That blend of Greek ideas and Roman magnificence became the Classical culture that we see in Troy, the modern Olympic Games, the rhetoric of democracy, the Latin mottoes of our schools and institutions, the brand names that are everywhere: Apollo, Pluravit, Nike, Vulcan, Telstra, Olympus, Magna, Polydent, Omega, Durotuss, to take a sample. We hardly notice and seldom acknowledge the visual symbols from the Classical world that surround us: the Corinthian columns, the Valentine’s Day Cupids, the olive branch and the laurel wreath, the eagle, the owl and the dove, the masks of tragedy and comedy.

Our children need to learn this Classical heritage. Mythology is a good place to start. There are lots of excellent retellings of Classical myths and legends for all ages. Children love the original stories as much as they take to books like Harry Potter which derive so much from these ancient stories. They can then appreciate why we talk of Achilles’ heel or the Golden Fleece or the many-headed Hydra or the Oedipus complex. They will look at famous paintings with familiarity. They will acquire what has been called “cultural literacy” .

The study of Latin and Greek could come next. Nearly all English words beyond the most basic come from these languages;  that’s what gives English its rich, many-layered vocabulary. “Eye” is Anglo-Saxon, “ocular” is Latin, “optometrist” is Greek.  “Foot” is Anglo, “pedal” is Latin, “podiatrist” is Greek. “Air” is from Greek, because only the Greeks realised the existence of this invisible substance and gave it a name. And then there’s the literature. Imagine reading Homer in Homer’s own words.  It’s a crying shame that Latin and classical Greek are taught in very few state schools. We are denying most of our children their cultural heritage, their knowledge of a Dreamtime that belongs to all Australians.

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About the Author

Emily Matters is President of the Classical Languages Teachers Association.

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