Ancient stories retold

What’s the difference between a myth and a legend? This question came to mind while reading a book by the same title. According to peddia.com, both are stories passed from one generation to another with a small difference.

A legend (derived from the Latin word Legenda: things to be read) is a romanticised narrative based on real characters or historical events that happened in ancient times with little evidence to verify the story. A myth (derived from the Greek word Mythos: thought or speech) is a symbolic story based on folk beliefs or religion to explain a natural phenomenon or human behaviour.

Going back to the book that is written by Anthony Horowitz (2007), it contains more myths than legends from around the world (mainly Greek). Most Greek myths are well known as they’ve been excessively presented throughout the centuries in books, on stage and in movies in recent times. Mention the legend of Achilles heel and the image of Brad Pitt in the movie Troy is what most people would remember. Or the myth of Hercules and two images come out immediately: Disney’s cartoon (1997) and the famous 90s series starring Kevin Sorbo.

The book has other Greek myths that are interesting but not really widely known like the spinning competition that happened between Athena- the Greek Goddess of handicrafts and war- and Arachne, a talented yet arrogant weaver. The events of the story lead to the creation of the spider. Another Greek myth gives an explanation of how the winter season came to exist involving Demeter – the Goddess of agriculture- and her daughter Persephone.

Other interesting stories – and fairly new to me- were the ones coming from the Norse and the American Indians cultures. There are also narratives from Celtic, Chinese, Eskimo and Japanese cultures. My favourite one comes from the Polynesian culture talks about Maui, the trickster hero who was able to fish New Zealand out of the sea using a magic jawbone. His four brothers insisted on cutting it up and did such a bad job which led to the many mountains in New Zealand and the islands with irregular shapes around it. The book is written in a simple language that could be read by audiences of all ages.

The amount of research that has gone into Myths and Legends is enormous and the writer provides an index at the end of it with names of Greek and non-Greek characters. It takes you to a journey through ancient times when things were explained in a simple and almost magical manner, away from the logic of science and technology that restricts and sometimes bore our brains nowadays. Wouldn’t it be easier to explain the phenomenon of echoes as a nymph- who goes by the name Echo- who was cursed by repeating the last words anyone spoke to her and her voice could still be heard in valleys and caves?

Horowitz’s sense of humour makes you chuckle now and then while being totally absorbed in the narrative. What I found truly fascinating is that many cultures -although on different continents- share almost the same beliefs, especially when it comes to stories of the creation of the universe. The book is a light read that should be sitting on everyone’s shelf. Next week, I’ll be discussing myths and legends that come from the Arabian Peninsula. Stay tuned!