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Greek Myths.

Byline: By DUNCAN HIGGITT Western Mail

Before Harry Potter, the Matrix, Star Wars and even Lord of the Rings, there was a cycle of stories so great that they have become the most important influence on Western storytelling and literature. These days, you are most likely to hear the heroes and tragedies of Greek myths quoted by some intellectual as they strive to explain the rigours of their bookish lives. But here at We Love, we think you shouldn't be put off by someone who went to Oxford or Cambridge because these are cracking good yarns.

Yes, you can read all kinds of messages into the works, and we are sure they were purposed in that way, but sometimes you need to put your brain on a shelf and enjoy a good old-fashioned tale.

Just look at the roll call of characters - Hercules, Theseus, Pegasus, Jason and the Argonauts, Pandora, not to mention the gods like Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Mercury. Then there are the terrifying villains - Medusa and the Gorgons, the Minotaur, the Kraken, the Harpies, Cerberus, Cyclops and the Hydra. And this is before we even get to Homer and Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Paris and Helen.

Greek myths have put literally hundreds of names into our consciousness, and these names are referenced in everything from Father Ted - Bishop Brennan's classic comment when the eternally drunk Father Jack comes round: 'Ah, the Kraken awakes' - to a company that fit burglar alarms: everyone must have heard of a Pegasus Securities?

I can still remember the book, Greek Mythology, bought with birthday money from my local bookshop when I was around eight years old. I had just got out of dinosaurs and was looking for a new obsession. In that book's 300-odd pages (simplified for a younger audience, no Tennyson here) were all the heroes mentioned above, and how they blew me away.

The stories and actions were so great that you could take it in turn to have a different hero every month. So in July, me and my brother would be beating Gorgons and freezing sea monsters, and in August we would be creeping very, very carefully through a labyrinth not in some East Sussex forest but hundreds of miles away on hot, dusty Crete.

I think, on the balance, Hercules was a constant favourite (although I never played my games as him, he was far too big to imitate). Not only was he good at whacking people with clubs, he also used his brains on occasions, like the cleansing of King Augeas' stables. Given just one day by Eurystheus to tidy up this huge complex as part of his 12 labours, he diverted two nearby rivers and washed the place through.

Jason and the Argonauts was another classic. His father having been dethroned by Iolcus, Jason was given the dangerous mission of recovering the Golden Fleece from the far side of the world. We are often told how far these heroes had to travel, but it's clear that most of them never made it out of the Mediterranean.

Then there is the Iliad. I didn't get around to reading this until I got to my teens, and have perhaps never fully appreciated Homer's poetry, but the tale of what was an early Greek version of Armageddon is one of the best known across the world. By this point, I enjoyed more than just the epic tales. As a 14-year-old hormonal washing machine, I enjoyed the streaks of impetuousness and cruelty that could be found in individuals like Achilles, their very human-ness, and how their weaknesses conspired in their downfalls. Greek heroes have never been perfect, and we like them that way.

I was a bigger fan of the Odyssey. The whole idea of being condemned to wander for 10 years really appealed, and I loved Odysseus' logical approach to problems, like the blinding of the Cyclops.

Now I have reached parenthood, I am passing on these stories to my children, and although they live in a world of instant heroic gratification, from everything from Yu-Gi-Oh to Power Rangers, they still love the Greek myths, and they see the brilliance of the storytelling. And I love telling them, because every time you read or recount them, you see something new and satisfying in them.

Duncan Higgitt.: The 12 labours of Hercules-how many can you remember:Kill the Nemean lion, whose skin was so thick that spears and arrows could not penetrate it. Kill the many headed Hydra - once one head was cut off, another would grow back in its place. Capture the hind of the Cerynitian, a female deer with golden horns. Hercules hunted it for a year. Capture an enormous boar in Arcadia Clean out the stables of King Augeas in a single day. Kill the Stymphalian birds.

Rid the Cretan countryside of the Minotaur.

Retrieve the mares of Diomedes.

Get the belt of the Amazon queen.

Steal the cattle of the three-headed giant Geryon.

Retrieve sacred apples of Hera, guarded by the nymphs and Ladon, a many-headed dragon. Bring the hellhound Cerberus up from Hades.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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