Fact and myth in kids’ guides to ancient sites

Mary Kekropoulou’s «Ancient Athens» and «Ancient Olympia,» the first and second of an archaeological guides for children series (Enalios Publications, 2004), pack an amazing amount of information into roughly 60 pages apiece. «Ancient Athens» covers the role of the Acropolis in Athens, the myths of the city’s foundation, the Panathenaea festival, the buildings on the rock, the south slope and in the Ancient Agora, as well as the Kerameikos. (Kekropoulou does not shy away from the seamier side of Greek mythology, including the attempted rape of the goddess Athena by smith-god Hephaestus.) «Ancient Olympia» has the same blend of the mythological and the historical. It includes the tale of Heracles’ nasty pay dispute with Augeas (called Augeias in the book), which ended in the institution of the Olympic Games to commemorate the hero’s victory over his cheating boss. The next chapters deal with the archaeological site, the ancient Games (including the unholy row between the cities of Elis and Pisa over who should be in charge and rake in the profits) and the archaeological excavations. The last-named, unfortunately, were begun in 1829 by a group of Frenchmen who are described as little better than «vile tomb raiders» (as in the lost ark?). Two sections on the rebirth of the Games and the museum conclude a full overview. Largely clear as well as informative, with stories to keep children entertained, the books are certainly on the right track (though suffering from a slight tendency to propagandize, as in the «marbles Elgin stole»). Abundant illustrations, both of ancient vase paintings and sculptures but also modern temple plans and drawings (by Nikos Dimitriadis, Vassiliki Kolee and G. Stevens, among others) give the books a bright, attractive look. Key words are in bold to highlight names and places. Nevertheless, the author, with a PhD in history and archaeological experience, sometimes falls into the trap of trying to impart too much information. Thus the introduction to Ancient Olympia talks about the local religious cults of the city-states (not defined), which were «related to the vegetation rites» (not defined), and then became «associated with the worship of a god or hero and that is why games started to be held in their honor.» This is overly complex for 10- to 12-year-olds (the target age group) and assumes too much knowledge on their part. More headings or breaks would also have been welcome and terms, such as the Hellanodikai, the super-International Olympic Committee of the day, are often defined later instead of when they first appear. A glossary for difficult words at the back is unhelpful: To describe the architrave (in «Ancient Athens») as the «lowest section of an entablature,» when entablature, later on, is defined as «the section of the temple that is supported by pillars consisting of the architrave, the frieze and the cornice» is hardly enlightening. And not enough heed is paid to language – of key importance in attracting children. There should have been much less timidity about cutting – what works well in Greek does not always work well in English, which avoids elaborate sentences such as this: Athena’s «temple… motivated humanity to bow with respect to its grandeur and radiance» («Ancient Athens»). Tighter control was needed over terms and spelling: What is the «Parliament» in the Ancient Agora? The «Argeians» are the Argives, one presumes. Some things are factually wrong, whether due to faulty translation or cutting: «Up to the years of the Peisistratus (sic), the kings of Athens lived in the Acropolis.» Not so; kings had long disappeared from the scene. Better editing would also scrupulously have erased concepts that are beyond young children (not the lustful Hephaestus, heaven forfend, but «the transcendence of the personality» engendered by the Dionysiac cult). A lot of work has gone into these books, and future editions would benefit from the services of experienced native-speaker editors.