Q & A with Donna Jo Napoli: author of National Geographic’s Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters
What is your favorite Greek myth and why?
Oh my, I love so many. But maybe Cupid and Psyche is my favorite because it deals with the illusions we have about those we love.
There are a lot of different interpretations of Greek mythology. How did you do your research? Are your versions more accurate than others?
I went back to the poet Hesiod and his (almost) contemporary Homer. If they disagreed, I stuck with Hesiod. If neither of them said much about something that interested me, I looked at Apollodorus. But I never read what the critics had to say about them all. I simply read the originals (but in translation). Every now and then I harked to Ovid, who I have always loved and who i can read in the original (Latin is hard for me, but not impossible). The interpretations of these poets is all mine -- with whatever blinders or insights I might have.
What Greek god or goddess often gets overlooked? Why is he/she so special?
Hestia is often overlooked, and I love her, because she was the goddess of family life -- the goddess people were most likely to have a statue of in their home. She tries to keep the peace, to hold families together -- what an admirable thing to do. So many other gods and goddesses just looked out for their own pleasures and toyed with people, as though no one really mattered except the immortals.
Why do ancient Greek myths still play such a vital role in the education of children?
Myths of any sort are lovely, because they try to provide answers to questions that plague humanity -- such as why one person lives to 90 and someone else gets cancer and dies as a teen, why a tsunami washes away a whole village while another goes unscathed, why one person wins the lottery and the rest of us get nothing, why blah blah blah. All those unfair things. But also questions of a deeper nature, such as why, given that we are mortal, why should we live? What's the point of it all? So I believe we'll always be drawn to myths (and, of course, I am including all religions here -- since what we call "myths" are simply religions that we expect no one believes in any longer).
But why Greek myths? Perhaps because they are alluded to so often, and we'd feel that we weren't given our children real access to understanding world literature without it. But, maybe also because the Greek gods are so very fallible. They make us feel better -- because if a god can be so spiteful or so dense about something, then maybe it isn't so shameful that we are also spiteful sometimes and dense sometimes.
The images in this book are stunning. How did the collaboration with Christina Balit, the artist, work?
Christina had already done a small handful of the illustrations, and National Geographic asked me if I'd like to do the words. I wrote the words, and then Christina did more illustrations and there were various negotiations over the illustrations. However, I also had to make changes in my words now and then, especially if her illustrations took more space or less space than we had anticipated. Through it all, Christina and I felt very collaborative and supportive. Indeed, we are now working on a book of Egyptian gods for National Geographic.
Which god or goddess gets an unfairly bad rap?
Wow, I don't know. I don't know how people talk about the gods today. As I said, I didn't read any literary criticism and I didn't read anyone else's interpretations of the originals. Perhaps people see Athena as being very bellicose. I see her as a bit more intellectual and more of a huntress. But I really don't know.
There are different ways of approaching writing stories that are well-known. One way is to look at what everyone else has said and then go forward from there. I can't do that. When I read what someone else has done, I think it's terrific -- marvelous -- right -- and if that's the case,then why should I write anything? You see? I get intimidated out of touching the topic. I'm better off just to look at the original and let it speak to me and let it work through the sensibilities I have in the world that I live in, and not have it filtered through anyone else's sensibilities. I trust myself to be connected to the world and at the same time to have my own voice. On such old and beloved stories, that's all I have to offer in the end -- my voice, right? So I try my best.