D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths Day Thread

Today’s thread is dedicated to D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a 1962 illustrated compendium of Greek mythology that is also one of the great works of 20th century children’s literature. The two author-illustrators of this book, Ingri d’Aulaire (born Ingri Mortensen) and her husband, Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, included a wide range of stories comprising lesser known tales as well as the more familiar myths concerning the Olympian pantheon and Greek heroes. Along with the beautiful artwork, one of the most striking features of the book is its fairly direct treatment of the more violent and dark aspects of Greek mythology.

The book is thematically divided into six parts. The first three, significantly shorter, sections cover a brief introduction to the ancient Greek religion, the story of the earth goddess Gaea, and the Titans.

Gaea, the earth goddess, and Uranus, the sky god, fall in love.

The three subsequent sections are organized primarily according to different, hierarchically determined categories of beings: Zeus and the other Olympian deities, minor deities, and Zeus’ mortal descendents.

Illustration depicting the Olympian family tree.

The illustrations were executed in ink on acetate, a departure from the d’Aulaires’ previous artistic method of stone lithography. Color is used to emphasize mood and tone, with darker episodes in Greek mythology frequently depicted in brown ink. The d’Aulaires’ artwork was strongly influenced by the aesthetics of Archaic and Classical Greek vase painting, sculpture, and architecture; some illustrations were also done in a playful impressionistic (not to be confused with Impressionist) style. The work below depicts Helen of Troy combing her hair while the Trojan war rages. Her hairstyle and “Archaic smile” recall ancient Greek kore statues of goddesses and young women.

The reunion of the goddess Demeter with her daughter Persephone is depicted using the bright, warm colors befitting a representation of the return of spring. In the myth, Demeter threatened to keep the earth in a state of perpetual winter until Zeus persuaded his brother Hades to return Persephone from the underworld, where he had forcibly taken her.

Orpheus is shown singing a mournful song after failing to bring his dead wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld. The power of his music to move the natural world is inventively and whimsically represented: trees, stones, flowers, and a lone carrot weep, while tearful wild animals gather around to console him, including a lion headbutting him like a cat. The maenads who will later kill him appear menacingly in the background.

The tale of Arachne is illustrated with this work showing the ill-fated girl, who dared to challenge Athena and mock the Olympian deities, turned into a spider for her efforts.

The birth of Aphrodite is a joyous, colorful scene. Pastel pink, yellow, blue, and green colored water reflects the dawn sky with its yellow and orange rays of sunlight. The goddess is blown by the wind towards the island of Cythera, where the Three Graces await her with garments and a golden chariot drawn by somewhat oversized doves.

The book ends on a poignant note concerning death, change, and continuity, which strongly resonated with me when I first read it as a child who loved the ancient world. The passage goes:

“Everything must come to an end, and so did the rule of Zeus and the other Olympian gods. All that is left of their glory on earth are broken temples and noble statues. Also the Muses fell silent, but their songs live on to this very day, and the constellations put up by the gods still glitter in the dark blue vault of the sky.”