In the preparation of this book, the aim has been to present in a manner suited to young readers the Greek myths that have been world favorites through the centuries, and that have in some measure exercised a formative influence on literature and the fine arts in many countries. While a knowledge of these myths is undoubtedly necessary to a clear understanding of much in literature and the arts, yet it is not for this reason alone that they have been selected; the myths that have appealed to the poets, the painters, and the sculptors for so many ages are the very ones that have the greatest depth of meaning, and that are the most beautiful and the best worth telling. Moreover, these myths appeal strongly to the child-mind, and should be presented while the young imagination can make them live. In childhood they will be enjoyed as stories; but in later years they will be understood as the embodiment of spiritual truths.
Many thousands of years ago there lived a race of people whom we call the Aryans. To this people everything seemed alive. When they looked up into the blue sky, where there were white clouds moving, they fancied that they saw a sea on which ships were sailing. Or, if the clouds were numerous and moved swiftly in one direction, driven by the wind, they believed that they saw cows driven by an invisible herdsman. In their eyes the dark storm-clouds were gigantic birds which flew over the sky carrying worms in their beaks. The lightning flashes were the worms, which these birds sometimes let fall. Or, the lightning was a fish, darting through the sea of cloud; or a spear, or a serpent. The storm-cloud was a dragon.
These people never tired of looking at the sky. They sometimes called the clouds treasure mountains, and the lightning an opening in the rock, which gave a glimpse of the bright treasure within. In time they came to think that the bright blue sky of day was a person, to whom they gave the name Father Dyaus (which means Father Sky), saying, because the sky seemed so high above everything else, that Father Dyaus ruled over all things. They also called the sun a shining wanderer, the golden-eyed and golden-handed god, and said that the darkness of night was a serpent, slain by their sun-god's arrows.
A time came when many tribes of this Aryan race moved on to other lands. Some of them settled in the land we now call Greece, taking with them their quaint stories of the sky and the clouds, of Father Dyaus, and the herdsman of the cloud-cattle, and the golden-eyed sun-god.
In Greece these stories and others were handed down from one generation to another through thousands of years; and while those who told these stories undoubtedly believed that every word was true, and took great pains to tell them exactly as they had heard them, yet in time the stories changed and grew.
After the Aryan tribes who moved into Greece had lived in that country for a long time, they forgot that Father Dyaus (Dyaus pitar) was the blue sky. Instead of calling him by his old name of Father Dyaus, they called him Father Zeus (Zeus-pater), the king and father of gods and men, while other Aryan tribes, who were afterward called Romans, knew him as Jupiter (Ju-piter). In the same way these people forgot, in time, that the herdsman who drove the cloud-cattle was the wind; they thought him a real person, or a god, and called him Hermes, or Mercury. In this way the old Greeks (that is, the descendants of the Aryans who had settled in Greece) came to believe in many gods, and it was a long, long time after this before they knew anything about the true God.
As time went on, every little kingdom in Greece had its own version of these old stories, or myths. They were told again and again, in the twilight, by the firesides of the people, and were often sung or chanted in kings' houses to the music of the lyre. In comparatively modern times, but still some thousands of years ago, the poets wrote them down, some writing one version and some another. Many of the books they wrote may still be read to-day.
According to the old Greek myths, Jupiter was the king and father of gods and men. He, with the other gods, lived high up on Mount Olympus, above the clouds. He was by far the strongest of the gods. His weapon was the thunderbolt; for the Greeks believed that the lightning flash was a kind of magic stone, shaped like a spear or an arrow, which Jupiter threw at his enemies, or at wrongdoers among men. The storm-loving eagle was Jupiter's bird, and it carried the thunderbolts in its claw.
Neptune and Pluto were brothers of Jupiter. Neptune ruled the sea, and Pluto was the king of the underworld, a dark, gloomy place where people were supposed to go after death. Juno was Jupiter's queen, and therefore the most powerful of the goddesses.
Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, of war for a right cause, and of the arts of peace. She gave the olive tree to the Greeks, and taught the Greek women how to spin and weave. She was the special protectress and helper of heroes.
Apollo was the god of prophecy, music, and poetry. Later, he was the god of the sun, especially of the light which comes from the sun, while Helios was the god of the sun itself. The rays of sunlight, which might sometimes be seen across a dark cloud, were Apollo's golden arrows. These arrows might bring death to mortals.
Diana was the twin sister of Apollo. Just as Apollo was the god of the light of the sun, she was the goddess of the light of the moon, while Selene, the real moon-goddess, was the goddess of the moon itself. Diana was a huntress who wandered over the mountains, carrying a bow and a quiverful of silver arrows. Her silver arrows, like Apollo's golden ones, were sometimes used to punish the guilty. She wore a crown shaped like the new moon, and her favorite animal was the stag.
Venus was the goddess of love and beauty. She was born from the foam of the sea, and was the most beautiful of all the goddesses. When she went abroad, her chariot was drawn by doves and surrounded by flocks of little singing birds.
Mars was the god of war in a bad sense. He loved fighting and bloodshed for its own sake.
Mercury was the herald and swift-footed messenger of the gods. He was the patron of herdsmen, travellers, and rogues. He wore a winged cap and winged sandals, and carried, as the sign of his office, a golden wand or staff, which had two wings at the top and two golden snakes twined around it. This staff was called the caduceus.
Ceres was the goddess of all that grows out of the earth, and was called the Great Mother.
Besides these great ones, there were others, not so strong and wonderful, who instead of living on Mount Olympus, above the clouds, had their homes in certain quiet places of the earth. These humbler ones were called nymphs, fauns, satyrs, river gods, and Tritons. The nymphs were everywhere; they haunted the meadows, groves, and mountains, and one of them was sure to be found at the bottom of every spring and fountain; they inhabited the trees; they lived in the sea. Fauns were the followers of Pan, the god of shepherds and other country folk. Like Pan, the fauns had little horns, pointed ears, and legs like a goat. Satyrs were the followers of Bacchus, the god of the vine. They had pointed ears, and little horns among their curls, but otherwise were very much like men. Tritons were said to have the upper part of the body like that of a man and the lower part like that of a fish. They lived in the sea, and could quiet its waters by blowing on their shell-trumpets.
In those days there were no solitary places; even the desert had its giants and its pygmies. That time of which the old myths tell us must have been wonderful indeed.