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I cannot wait for the pageantry and ritual of the Olympic opening ceremony tonight, thought there are a whole lot of traditions from ancient Greece I’m glad we have shed. The ancient Olympics, which began in 776 B.C., were open only to free men who spoke Greek. Not only were women barred from competing, married women were forbidden to attend under pain of death. (See The Perseus Digital Library). I assume maidens were permitted to attend so that they could be seen, appreciated and vetted for marriage by the aristocrats who funded the athletes.

By 560 B.C., there was a separate set of athletic games for women called the Heraia, dedicated to the goddess of marriage, Hera, and probably positioned as a prenuptial initiation rite.

Understanding the cultural history of the Olympics reminds me how important it is to ACT on the sexism  of Greek mythology when sharing these ancient stories with modern children.  On story in particular that had always fascinated and troubled me is the tale of great female athlete Atalanta, which goes something like this:

The cruel king who fathered Atalanta abandoned her in the woods because she was not the son he had hoped for. She was nursed and raised by a she-bear, the goddess Artemis in disguise. After she was caught in a snare by a huntsman who taught her to speak, she won fame all over Greece for her fleetness of foot.  She humiliated an army of ineffectual Greek warriors by slaying the monstrous Caledonian boar with one deftly placed arrow. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, an oracle warns her “you must shun any marriage; if this advice will not be taken; though you stay alive, you will have lost yourself.” (Allen Mandelbaum’s translation)

Atalanta’s worthless father, the king, reclaims her as she wins more fame for her hunting, grace and fleetness of foot. She makes him promise that any suitor who wishes to marry must beat her in a footrace, or be put to death. She is gorgeous, almost supernatural, as she runs, as so many great athletes are.  Many suitors are beaten and put to the sword. Finally a young prince named Melanion (or Hippomenes in the Roman version) sacrifices to Aphrodite, who gives him three golden apples. As he races Atalanta for her hand, he throws down the apples on the path. Each time, she strays a little further from her course to retrieve the irresistible, gleaming apple. Just as she picks up the third fruit, he crosses the finish line and “wins her” as his wife. In their passion, the married couple forgets to sacrifice to Aphrodite. Miffed, she turns them into a pair of fierce, growling lions.

It has always bothered me that Melanion must conquer Atalanta and make her stray from the path of greatness in order to win her. This story begs for retelling, and this week I’ll give my kids a chance to do that. The perspective I’d like to change in the story is that of Melanion.  I’ll report back in part 2 of this blog post.

No toy has held sway over my daughter’s imagination like her pastel My Little Ponies. At 5 1/2, in transition from little kid to big kid, she’s reading on her own and looking to take her pony obsession up a level. So I knew it was a done deal when, at a book sale, she picked up the second book in the Bella Sara Series,Valkrist’s Flight,  with a cover adorned with a shimmering, winged, white horse complete with a purple orchid tattoo on it’s flank. Total girl catnip.

The Bella Sarah series is intended for children aged 7-10; I knew it was something I should read with my 5.5-year-old and I was dreading it.  I expected ponies, princesses, gowns, girl rivalries, etc. I did not expect to meet the Valkyries in the course of the story. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries are handsome warrior maidens who accompany the father-god, Odin, into battle on winged horses. They are muses of war, inspiring courage and fury. When a hero falls on the battlefield, a Valkyrie sweeps his soul from his body, slings it across her saddle, and carries him to Valhalla, a hall in the gods’ home of Asgard where war heroes spend eternity eating barbecue, guzzling mead, and brawling.

Valkryies, Two Ways

I keep my beloved D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths locked and loaded for the time when my daughter is ready to read it, but she is not mature enough to handle most of the stories. . .  yet. Norse mythology is a particularly bloody, bellicose and blackly humorous body of narrative in which Balder, the God of light and beauty is murdered; Loki, the shape-shifter, changes into a mare and is impregnated by a stallion; Odin, the stern father-god, plucks out his eye and hangs himself from the tree of life to obtain wisdom; and oh yeah, the world ends. Few of these tales scream, “Read me to a little girl!”

However, the author of the Bella Sara series, Felicity Brown, has found a way to weave Norse mythology into modern coming-of-age stories about horse adoration. The first book in the series is populated with wolves descended from the great wolf monster of Norse Mythology, Fenrir. Book 2, Valkrist’s Flight, is the story of an orphan who discovers she is the descendant of a banished Valkyrie. I thought this was a really interesting premise and hoped to see the story of a modern Valkyrie develop in the tradition of Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, but it seems the Bella Sara books are a series born of playing cards. Therefore, each story is the story of a different of a different girl in love with a different horse; they are meant to be collected like pretty ponies. The mythology in this series is decorative, though the values of self reliance and compassion for animals that the books promote are admirable.

When you can’t find the book you want, create it. In ancient Norse culture, the Valkyries were used as a way to sweeten the horrors of war, as mythic propaganda. Sharing myths with kids gives a parent the chance to examine a culture’ values in relation to one’s own.  I’d like to tell my daughter a story in which a modern Valkyrie chooses to spare a life and reject and an endless cycle of war. Tonight that’s what I’ll do.

My family and I have just returned from a week at Piseco Lake, in the Adirondacks, where my paternal relatives have lived and/or vacationed for generations. We stayed in my grandmother’s house, on the lip of a lake where she once washed and wrung her sheets before laundry machines existed.  It was a week of water and fire, with fireworks exploding above the black sheen of the lake, and marshmallows toasted over campfires as we listened to lapping waves.

My family members like to think of ourselves as native to the Adirondacks, but of course, no white person is native to the Adirondacks. When my dad was a kid, he dislodged Indian arrowheads from bark and dirt with his pocket knife. History is also lodged in the words we use. Piseco is a Native American word for fish.  Adirondacks is an Anglicized version of a Mohawk word that means “They Eat Bark.” The Mohawk Indians, a nomadic tribe that used the Adirondacks as fishing and hunting grounds, named their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians, ratirontaks, for their practice of sucking on bark when food was scarce. This pejorative word was applied to and misappropriated by white settlers. Eventually it evolved into the name for the mountain range.

During this week of campfires, I thought a Mohawk story about how mankind obtained fire would raise my kids’ awareness about the original people of the Adirondacks, and educate them about a way of life in which it took more than a match or lighter to ignite a flame. I found the story of How Fire Came to the Six Nations on the website First People. The (by-no-means-authentic) version of the story I told my children at our campfire is heavily based on this account, with a layer of personal interpretation that’s the natural result, and perhaps the point, of retelling. It went something like this:

Long before your cousins hunted in these hills or your great-grandfather fished on the lake, a tribe of Mohawk Indians came here each year to hunt, fish and gather blueberries, to feed their families with the bounty of this wild place. 

There was a boy, almost a man, named Three Arrows in that tribe. The sun shone in his heart: he smiled as his arrows flew straight and true. His father was the chief of the Mohawks, and he recognized something powerful and unbreakable in his son. He knew it was time for his son to commune with the animal spirits, the tribe’s protectors, and to find his place amongst the members of the tribe. He told his son that he must go into the forest and fast, eat nothing and see no-one, until the Great Thunderbird sent him a vision to help his tribe.

His father warned that if he did not see a vision by the setting of the sixth sun, he would have to return to the village. Three Arrows was excited about his journey into the wild of dreams. He brought nothing but water, and the moccasins and loincloth he wore on his body. For many nights, starving and alone in the woods, his dreamed of nothing but black emptiness and he worried he would have to go home in defeat. On the fifth morning, he found a cave that smelled of bear, the totem of his tribe. This was strong medicine. He prayed to Great Thunderbird to send him a vision, and suddenly lightening lit up the sky outside of the cave and he saw the silhouette of a huge bear.  The bear told him a great mystery would be revealed to him that night.

The dream-bear disappeared just as a huge lightening bolt that resembled a blazing arrow lit the sky. The boy braved whipping winds that smelled of bear to walk in the direction that the arrow pointed. He heard an awful screeching sound from a high peak above him, and his heart beat hard in his chest. He knew he had to heed the bear’s words and find what it was the spirits wanted to reveal, so he climbed the peak, where saw two balsam trees rubbing and rubbing together as the wind whipped them. The trees threw off a spark, like tiny lightening. that ignited a fire.

No one in his clan had ever seen fire at this close range, and Three Arrows was terrified. He scrambled down the hill, but suddenly a vision of his family, his clan, entered his mind and he found the courage to face the strange magic. He climbed the hill, snapped two twigs off the balsam pine, and rubbed them together furiously. At first nothing happened, but he kept going until his armed ached, sweat ran down his brow, and a spark flew from the friction of his sticks.

The boy took this knowledge and this story back to the Mohawk people, who gave him a new name, Blazing Arrow.          

I wasn’t quite sure how much of this story my kids absorbed, but today my three-year-old picked up two sticks and began rubbing them together furiously, so he learned something. Hopefully, he won’t get too good at this!