Friday, 9 April 2010

The Triumph of Athene

Well the results of my “Favourite Olympians” poll are now in and I asked Lucy Coats to comment on them. Lucy is as much of a mythographer as I am and her books of Greek myths re-told as by the storyteller Atticus are coming out all this year from Orion in a positively Olympian dozen. The first four came out in February and the second four will be out in May. The Greek Beasts and Heroes set will be completed in August. That’s a lot of books and stories in one year.

Here’s a bit about Lucy: She was brought up in Hampshire on a wild strawberry farm, overrun by dogs, pheasants, and wildlife. She also had a pet bantam which rode to school on the back of the car seat. After surviving a boarding school education and a Scottish university degree course in English and Ancient History, Lucy started work as a publisher’s editor, latterly working in New York.
She married Richard in 1989, and retired from publishing to have babies and write. Her first picture book was published in 1992 and in 2004 she was shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award. Lucy has now written more than 25 books, including the Greek Beasts and Heroes series, and she blogs at, which has just been shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards. She lives with her husband deep in the Northamptonshire countryside, surrounded by cows, sheep, horses, owls, foxes, three lunatic dogs, two wonderful children and a large and demanding garden.

Book Maven: What did you think of the poll results, Lucy?

Lucy Coats: I found the results of the Olympians poll fascinating, and it’s set me thinking about why I like or dislike certain gods and goddesses. Zeus and Hera are bottom of the poll with 1 vote each—and yet they are King and Queen of the gods. Perhaps it’s that aura of untouchable all-powerfulness which people find offputting. Why vote for someone who has it all anyway? And yet, as you said youirself, Mary, they are necessary underpinnings for the whole canon of Greek myth.

Zeus’s serial philandering (morally reprehensible, maybe) has given us both his immortal and demi-god children. Would I truly wish him to be a faithful husband, and thus be without, say, Aphrodite (no lovers or Trojan War stories, then) or Perseus (no Medusa tales) or Heracles (no Tasks)? Hera’s vindictiveness towards Zeus’s conquests (and to his offspring) is unpleasant—but can I say that, in the same situation, I might not have had a vengeful thought or two? Definitely no to both.

BM: I know; it’s like the eternal conundrum of whether writers would have given us such masterpieces if they had lived happier lives. Should we wish that Dickens hadn’t worked in the blacking factory or should we just be grateful for David Copperfield? Any surprises in the votes?

LC: I was surprised that Aphrodite languished beside Hephaestus and Ares until the very last minute. Are we all jealous of her beauty? Or is it perhaps that her meddling in the lives of Paris and Helen—leading to the Trojan War—is unforgiveable? I feel that in that case she was only true to her nature, and really, the whole thing was set off by discontented Eris and her wretched apple anyway. As for Hephaestus, well, I rather like him. At least he got his hands properly dirty with all that smith work—and he had a pretty rotten start in life (Hera again, chucking him down to earth and crippling him). His inventions were amazing—and I’ve always wanted one of his trundling magical food trolleys. Ares—well, personally I would have put him lowest of the low. Apart from the problem I have with war anyway, he was a coward who whimpered with fear when he had even the smallest wound. If you’re going to set heroes fighting—let alone the rank and file troops—then at least have the decency to set them a heroic example.

BM: So those were the ones with the fewest votes. What about the good solid middle-rankers?

LC: Demeter, Apollo and Hermes are the mid-rankers. Demeter lost her daughter—as a mother I have to sympathise with that, and as one who suffers with depression, I can understand that long slide into a cheerless winter. As a gardener and cook I also identify with her as goddess of plenty. I am subliminally grateful to her every time I pick a bean or a tomato—or currently my exquisite purple sprouting broccoli.
The thing I find hardest to stomach about Apollo is his murder of the original priestesses of Delphi, and his wholesale stealing of their cult. Because that’s what the ‘Arrows of the Sun’ story is all about. I don’t like it when matriarchal societies are trampled—that’s the feminist in me coming out. Hermes was the one I voted for. It’s that pure cheekiness and effrontery about him which I love—and the story where he steals Apollo’s cows when he is only a baby makes me laugh every time. I just think he’d be the most fun to be with—but then I’ve always been on the side of the bad boys and the rebels!

BM: I love that: the rebel who grows broccoli! Now what about winners?

LC: The top four are a less surprising mix, though I would not necessarily have guessed that Poseidon would be up there. He was beastly to Odysseus because of Troy, but really, it wasn’t just Odysseus who brought about its downfall. I’ve always thought that Poseidon was over harsh in that particular case. I am also scared of the sea—I don’t want to go out further than I can touch—so he was never going to be my favourite.

BM: You learn on sorts of things in the blogosphere! So the intrepid Lucy is scared of deep water. Me, I have vertigo, so would not do well on Olympus.

LC: I should be fond of Dionysus—he invented red wine, which is a thing without which I would find life a lot less pleasurable. But somehow all those maenads put me off. I’ve just read Philip Womack’s The Liberators which brings them rather terrifyingly into the modern world, and I hate what they did to poor Orpheus in Dionysus’s name—hadn’t the man suffered enough already?

BM: You know in the end I voted for Dionysus, even though he did get 8 other votes. I thought no-one would choose him and I have a soft spot for him because he rescued Ariadne after Theseus was so vile to her.

LC: Being subject to the moon as all women are gives second-placed Artemis a special spot in my heart. She is mystery incarnate, the virgin huntress, and in her are echoed Kerridwen and Astarte and all the other goddesses of the night. Pure, simple, direct—and I have no problem with her hunting, which seems to me to be a responsible act and not at all a thing of bloodlust and savagery. Apologies to you as a vegetarian here, Mary, but I think that if we carnivores took the same responsibility for our food today—acknowledged, honoured and gave thanks that a breathing creature has given its life to feed us—then there might be a lot less cruelty to and ignorance about animals in the world. I also like the eternal rebirth of Artemis’s quarry—there is something very beautiful to me in the stories where, at that awful moment of the arrow in the throat, the silver spirit of the stag rises up and lives again.

BM: I love Artemis too and nearly voted for her. I question slightly that “has given its life,” though I think “has had its life taken away” would be more accurate, unless ione is thinking of the obliging cow in The Restaurant at the end of the Universe, but I take your point.

And now, big drum roll ... the winner!

LC: So, finally, to Athene, whom everyone apparently loves. I was torn, I must confess, between her and Hermes. I do find it interesting that the top two are virgin goddesses. What does that say about us? Do we like the ‘good girls’ better than the ‘good-time girls’? As a writer, of course, the goddess of wisdom is always going to be high up in my pantheon. But what I really like about Athene is her calm. She is very restful in my opinion—which the quicksilver, darting Artemis is not. I feel that she is a goddess I could sit down and have a long conversation with—that she could be a friend.

BM: So that’s an invitation to Athene to pop round for a cup of coffee with us and one of Lucy’s famous raspberry and cream shortbreads. She can prop her spear in my umbrella stand.

LC: In the end, what I love about all the Greek gods is, paradoxically, their humanity. The Olympian stage they act on is bigger and more magical than our own, but their emotional reactions to events are entirely recognisable to me. They are ourselves, writ large on the heavens.

BM: Thanks Lucy, for dropping by and sharing your insights with us.

Lucy's website is at
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Anonymous said...

I've just realised what has been bugging me about this poll - where was Hestia, patron of ordinary decent housewives, in this poll? She is much more of a real Olympian than stupid wine-soaked Dionysus... I think the fact that she was sidelined in favour of various hoydens and viragos displays a politically dubious anti-conservative bias on the part of this blog! ;)

Lucy Coats said...

I love Hestia too--but she stepped down from the original 12 Olympians in favour of Dionysus. It wasn't the Maven's decision--these 12 Olympians were decided long ago, so don't blame her! Golly--I want to see the maven-reaction to being called politically dubious and anti-conservatively biased, though....

Mary Hoffman said...

Hahaha! Hestia herself stood down in favour of Dionysus, though Verlaine might argue she was pressured into doing so.

Maybe we should have another poll or celebration of non-Olympian immortals then we can have Hestia, Hades, Rhiannon's favourite Eris, not to mention Iris. Persephone too.

Am quite happy to be labelled anti-conserative, by the way. Even though I do practise Hestia's traditional skills of hearth and home.

Nayuleska said...

Wow, it was fascinating to see the results. Glad Athene won (even though I voted for Artemis) - after all, a city was named after her!

Kathryn Evans said...

Great interview! I voted Dionysus and am feeling slightly shallow for doing so. Still, life's short, pleasures are sweet...

Marjorie said...

:-) That was fun - I'm sorry I missed the poll... and I defy Athene not to take you up on your invitation ;-)

Lucy's Atticus was one of the first books I blogged about when we started the PaperTigers blog - and recently my 9-year-old and one of his best friends have been devouring it again. It' s such a great way for kids to absorb the Greek myths... Thank you!

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