Leaving Cambridge, I pop into Blackwells and purchase two books about the Greek legends. What better way, I am thinking, to entertain and educate one’s young children than to introduce them to the original mythology of western civilisation? Moreover, this is a nice little saver, since I get about 800 pages of stories for a two-book total of 18 quid, compared with about a quid a page in the larcenous children’s department.
There is just one problem. Like most people who think it a good idea to educate their young in the Greek mythos, (and in our case even name the eldest child after the Greek goddess of the earth), I have never actually read the material. On so doing I quickly discover that the legends are not the child-sanitised morality tale I had in mind.
It is an initial relief to discover that Gaia is indeed the earth, can be construed as its goddess, and was the first thing to come into the Greek world after darkness — a poetic reference, I decide, to our first-born after all those years of waiting. Reading on, however, things quickly become rather less poetic. Gaia had a jealous husband: Uranus, the sky. He was a) addicted to sex and b) unwilling to have any child enter the world to compete with him for attention. So Uranus kept his dick permanently inside Gaia in order to prevent any of the children he sired from being born. Gaia, naturally, didn’t much like this. So she persuaded the youngest child in her belly, Cronus, to castrate Uranus while he was shagging. You can imagine that this came as a hell of a shock to Uranus, who jumped off Gaia and up into the sky. His dick fell into the ocean, where it floated about in a foaming mass of sperm and gave rise to Aphrodite, [sic] the goddess of love (ho, ho, ho). Meanwhile blood from Uranus’s wound splattered on the earth and produced the Erinyes – the furies, or avenger gods (this at least sounds plausible). Cronus and the other ‘titan’ kids escaped from Gaia’s womb, but Cronus grew up to be a ‘wrong ‘un’, imprisoned most of his siblings in the underworld, and ate his own children.
In the end, Zeus came on the scene and sorted out the big issues. But then Zeus himself got hacked off with (mortal) man, and sent down woman in the form of Pandora as a form of punishment. Pandora was good looking, but also sexually rapacious, gluttonous and pathologically deceitful, so that man’s life became miserable. ‘This is the dilemma now,’ observes French Greek-legend guru Jean-Pierre Vernant: ‘If a man marries, his life will pretty certainly be hell, unless he happens on a very good wife, which is extremely rare. Conjugal life is thus an inferno – misery after misery….If he marries it is a catastrophe, and if he doesn’t, it’s another kind of catastrophe.’ (pp61)
The children, all teed up before I read the text, are greatly excited at the prospect of hearing daddy tell them the story of Gaia and the Greek gods. They snuggle up on the sofa in baited anticipation. Daddy must now scale a new peak of judicious paraphrasing. He does his best: ‘Once upon a time, Gaia had a very naughty son called Cronus, who even stabbed his daddy with something a bit like a knife – which is something you must never, ever do… then there was Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of love who, would you believe it, was discovered one day floating about on something a bit like an upturned canoe on the sea, but without a paddle… while cheeky Cronus became naughtier and naughtier and even swallowed his children – but without chewing, mind – until Zeus made him sick them up; not that one should ever try to make anyone sick anything up… and then Zeus created the first woman, who was very beautiful and had lovely clothes and jewels, but was, frankly, well, a bit of a handful… not at all like mummy, so just think about how lucky you are…ooh, is that the time, well lights out, good night… yes, of course I will…
Next day, the eldest child is heard to tell her brother, who happens to share his name with one of Christ’s disciples: ‘You are a friend of Jesus. That’s very good. But I am a God.’ Once again, liberal parenting has broadened the horizons that other parenting cannot reach.