No longer suburban, Bruce Bentzman offers the latest piece in his new series:

From the Night Factory

10. Greek Mythology

It is because I love a good story that when I was in the seventh grade, I became enamored with mythology, particularly Greek mythology. It supplanted my earlier passion for dinosaurs. It inspired me to read the Bible and learn Jewish and Christian mythology as well, but the Greek myths were much better than the myths of the Hebrews. Even my mother, who was born into an Orthodox Jewish household, insisted on calling the Bible a “fairy-tale” and therefore a waste of her time, yet she enjoyed the Greek myths.

In the beginning, the Greek myths belonged to a Hellenistic culture and were universally known, but as a religious belief. It has changed. For centuries, Greek myths or their Roman counterparts provided iconic stories, a shared understanding for an educated class, the myths serving as a cultural language. One of my proudest memories was a class trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was twelve or thirteen. The docent led us to a chest manufactured during the Renaissance, pointed to one of the carved panels and asked if anyone knew who it was. It was Herakles. I recognized him instantly by his lion-skin hoody and lumpy club. Similarly, I was the only one to recognize Prometheus hanging on a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. The more we are able to read, the more our lives are enriched.

As for me, in that twelfth year of life, I was doing a miserable job of keeping my grades up in school and was equally pitiful in Hebrew school, where I was being prepared for my bar mitzvah. However, at home I was reading every mythological text on my father’s shelf. It was also my good fortune that my father would buy any book I wanted. He bought me Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece by W. H. D. Rouse, a book I held in higher regard than the Bible. The first translations I read of The Iliad and The Odyssey were both by W. H. D. Rouse.

In time I would read many translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, most recently those by Robert Fagles. Of Greek mythology in general, perhaps Edith Hamilton or Thomas Bulfinch wrote better books, but my loyalty remained with W.H.D. Rouse, maybe because his was the first book I read on the subject. Apollodorus, Hesiod, Ovid, all eventually engaged me as a child, stealing me out of the oppressive classes of less interesting subjects taught by martinets following senseless dogma. Nor have I finished with this passion. Staring down at me is the two-volume set of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, which will be the next book I engage when I return to the subject.

When I took a course in Children’s Literature at Bucks County Community College, our professor startled the class by requiring us to take a pop quiz before the first lesson began. The quiz consisted of a series of phrases and we were required to fill in the blanks with the appropriate words that followed. As the class examined the test placed before them, there were giggles and snorts of relief. The test went something like this:
1. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, _______.
2. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, _______.
3. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, _______.
Et cetera.
Without exception, we all passed with flying colors. The professor went on to explain how such nursery rhymes were a significant hallmark of academic-bound students, whereas unfamiliarity with nursery rhymes was a sure sign of never reaching college. Nursery rhymes are an early indoctrination into an educated culture. My advice, read nursery rhymes to your children and, when they are older, read to them the Greek myths. Do not make them wait until they are twelve.

Perhaps it was because I was young, I could appreciate the fun-loving and adventurous gods and heroes of the Greeks. They had passions and took pleasure in beauty, whether it be in craft or appearance. The god of the Jews was too staid and arbitrary, without expressions of enjoyment or an appreciation for beauty. The god of the Jews was never interested in anything other than obsessively governing and manipulating people. All work and no play makes Yahweh a dull god.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"