I first got to know Debb D. in graduate school, when I was working part-time in a writing center on our campus. She was pursuing a Classics Ph.D. when we met.
At the writing center, Debb was one of my favorite regulars to work with. Rather than skimming the surface to check grammar and proofreading, we’d really dig into the details of the Greek and Latin texts she studied. I loved brainstorming with her about how to shape her ideas into essay form.
Fast forward six years. Debb and I are getting our kids together for a playdate. She had left her doctoral program when pregnant with her first child and was now home full-time with her two young children.
The passage of time and the incongruity of the two scenes – university campus, local park – were palpable to both of us. So, amidst chasing after her sweet, energetic toddler and sampling the cuisine from a twig-and-rock ‘restaurant’ staffed by the two older kids, we talked about our lives as parents and former academics.
During our conversation, Debb remarked on the unexpected ways that her Classical training has resurfaced in her modern world of parenting. Certainly, it motivates her attempts to foster a love of languages, including Greek and Latin, in her children. But Classical writings have also been a source of comfort, of emotional and intellectual nourishment, during challenging times as a mother.
In the post below, Debb shares her experience watching a puppet show about King Midas alongside her children. You can find her blog LatinGreekInspire – which offers a Classicist’s perspective on parenting – here.
Greek Myth in Puppetry — My First Classical Activity with Children
As someone ardently and rigorously trained in Classical Greek and Latin, I’ve been occasionally thinking about how to incorporate my classical interest into activities with my toddler son Remus and preschooler daughter Rhea.*
I’ve always had a bent for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Greek tragedies, and Latin poetry in general. I’ve made brief mentions of Achilles and Odysseus as well as the Trojan horse to my preschooler. Yet, as anyone could imagine, a fuller exploration into these ancient tales could be too arcane for little minds.
At my best effort, we have tried singing the Greek alphabet, watched a Greek DVD designed for kids, and attempted to write several Greek letters with my eldest daughter. Her name in real life comes from Greek too. We even made up a silly song on the first and the last letter of the Greek alphabets, the alpha (Α α)and the omega (Ω ω), to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it”.
But really we didn’t have a full-blown classical activity with my daughter until this summer.
Thanks to Austin Public Library’s performance troupe, “Literature LIVE,” my daughter had her first experience with Classics — a mythical story about King Midas in the form of a puppet show. I’ve watched tragedies and comedies staged for adult audience in theaters before. But a puppet show based on a myth? Well, none at all! This was a whole new experience for me seeing a mythical story staged with puppets in front of a child audience.
Midas in Myth
Before I talk about our excitement as an audience, let me recount some interesting background on the myth of Midas.
As of now, the Midas myth is likely the most ancient story my children have ever heard. Midas was the mythical king of Phrygia (near modern-day Ankara, Turkey). He is known for his fabulous wealth, extravagant adornments, and his donkey’s ears in Greco-Roman mythology. The myth of Midas’ donkey’s ears fascinated my children —but that’s a story for another time.
Myth, μῦθος in Greek, means a story, a tale or a narrative. Since most stories were circulated orally, it’s not surprising that there were no single authoritative versions of myths. Thus, different versions of the King Midas’ story circulated in antiquity.
The Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17CE) gave a more complete shape to the myth, a version more known to modern readers, in his poem Metamorphoses (Latin for “transformations”).
Metamorphoses Book XI tells of Midas’ care for the satyr Silenus who got drunk and lost at a festival. Since Silenus is the foster father and school master of the god Bacchus (aka Dionysus in Greek), Bacchus returns Midas’ favor for his meticulous care and agrees to grant any wish Midas proposes:
“…quidquid / corpore contigero fulvum vertatur in aurum.”/adnuit optatis nocituraque munera solvit/ Liber, et indoluit, quod non meliora petisset.”
“May whatever I [Midas] shall touch
with my body be changed to yellow gold.”
Bacchus agreed to his choice and dispensed the gifts that would harm.
and Midas is grieved because he sought not the better things. (Metamorphoses XI. 102-5)***
At first, King Midas thought he was happy. He put to the test his newly acquired power —he pulled a twig, picked up a dark stone, plucked a stalk of wheat, gathered an apple…. All these actions transformed the objects into shining gold at his fingertips.
Soon, however, Midas calls himself wretched when he realizes that even the touch of his teeth and mouth would turn bread and wine into cold, solid gold. The happiest man a moment ago now considers himself the most miserable man. Nothing is more ironic than possessing as much gold as one could; yet neither his hunger nor thirst is satiated. Midas’ daughter is present in other versions in which Midas becomes deeply grieved after changing her into a golden statue.
Moaning over the baneful gift that brings upon such grief, he calls himself rich but wretched, and confesses to Bacchus:
Sed miserere, precor, speciosoque eripe damno.”
“I have done wrong,” [Midas] said,
“but pity me, I pray, and save me from this curse that seemed good.” (Metamorphoses XI.132-133)
The story ends with King Midas’ regret and request for the removal of the golden touch. Regardless of the version you read, the Midas myth is undoubtedly captivating, which explains why the story has evoked countless adaptations by writers and artists.
Midas in Puppetry
Back to the library’s puppet show! It was recommended for ages five to ten. Heavy rain on a hot summer day in Austin didn’t diminish the children’s enthusiasm for coming to the library for myth and puppetry. Two wonderful ladies brought this myth alive, with an audience size of over 60 people excluding adults. All children were seated on the floor; Rhea and I found good viewing spots in the front row. The puppet stage of around ten meters in height did look bigger and grander than its real size when the audience was looking upwards. The two puppet manipulators put on the long, black gloves, and then went behind the theatre stage. Lights off, music on, puppet show began!
The first scene was set in King Midas’ rose garden. In front of us was Midas affectionately counting and kissing a pile of gold coins. The audience reveled in laughter and merriment at the king’s silly, over-the-top behavior. Humor and chase scenes were neatly woven through the storytelling. The viewers, young and old, were so visually engaged and enchanted that Rhea was able to let go of her wiggles and thus allowed me a rare moment to enjoy the show.
After Midas turned a series of objects and creatures into gold, the air in the room grew thick with the collective sense of expectation of what would happen to Midas’ daughter. Some children let out a sigh of sympathy when they finally saw that the miserable Midas wished to hug his daughter but hopelessly transformed her into a lifeless golden statue. In agreement with the traditional myth, the show ended with Midas successfully having his golden power removed. Midas was reunited with his daughter.
My preschooler daughter was totally carried away by the dramatic storytelling. A lover of Classics, I was more than thrilled to see the ecstatic response from the children to this thirty minutes of powerful puppetry.
I’m fairly sure each kid had something to take away from the show, whether they responded to the comedy or the underlying lesson. I think it was especially appealing to Rhea because the classical myth was told to her by the puppets, i.e. the comic performers, instead of by an adult like me. Amusement danced in her eyes when the inanimate puppets were made animate. There was also an immense pleasure from participating with so many children, laughing together, and becoming the collective spectator of a story set in a distant time. The viewers were all transported to a temporary, mythical place that fed into any child’s craving for imagination.
More significantly for parents like me, the show offered a rare opportunity to bask in the exotic realm where we were all liberated from the chores and sores of parental duties.
The Midas Myth and My Child’s Imaginative Play
Even now my daughter speaks of King Midas whenever any gold toys or objects catch her sight. “I think Midas turned this into gold,” chuckles Rhea.
Since my daughter enjoys pretend play more than anything else, she also invented the Midas touch game. We played it so often that even her toddler brother Remus learned how to pronounce the word “gold” and identify the color correctly.
Contentedly, I smiled at my daughter knowing that the classical myth of King Midas had made its way into her memory. In fact, the impact of the puppetry extends beyond the memory level, but it’s even more pleasurable for me to know that Rhea is creatively expanding the imaginative world of the mythical story into her own pretend play.
Of course, my language-loving spirit never ceases to find appropriate moments to introduce the fun of classical languages to my children. Since it had been a summer goal for Rhea to work on the English alphabet systematically, I thought “why don’t I give a try and let her sample a taste of the Latin language, especially since the Latin and the English alphabets share most of the same letters!?”
Teaching Latin to my preschooler daughter is nothing fancy or difficult. It simply started with me writing “aurum” and “gold” side by side on just a piece of paper. I spelled out the Latin word “aurum” letter by letter and told her that both aurum and gold mean the same thing, but they are just different languages. We tried to pronounce and write out aurum several times. Rhea was very enthusiastic but responded to me saying that the sound of it was quite funny.*****
Our Latin activity ended with making a DIY keepsake of the Midas coin! It was a totally ad hoc idea, using just playdough and gold paint. We wrote the Latin letters of aurum on top of the dried-up playdough painted in gold. Then we pasted a tiny piece of magnet behind the coin and put it up on the fridge. I’m not an incredibly crafty person. But this simple keepsake craft is a lovely reminder to my crafty daughter of the Midas myth every time she looks up at the fridge.
The Battle of the Titans: Between Motherhood and Intellectual Interest
Just as most mothers would agree, sometimes we feel frazzled at performing dozens of repetitive, uninspiring chores for the kids. This is especially true if your littles ones are very young like mine and do depend on routines to thrive. Quite truthfully, I’ve been very aware of the monotony of motherhood and the terrors of routines as they can become intellectually stifling after a long time.
From time to time, I remind myself – intellectual stimulation can take place anywhere with a person who finds pleasure in thinking, learning, and digging deep into stuff.
In my past several years of parenting, I’ve been enjoying and feeling grateful for the role of a mother. Yet, it doesn’t mean my heart wasn’t at war at first. For the first two years after I left academia, I had a recurring dream of lecturing a Classics course in front of students. It was a blissful, vivid dream that I didn’t want to wake up from.
With my kids growing a little older day by day, I’ve learned to appreciate how my love for Classics takes a different form of expression when I get to share it with my children. Classics is not as solemn a subject as one might imagine. Instead, it can be hands-on, delightful and practical. There are silly things like Midas’ donkey ears and a gold-loving king and others to talk about.
It makes me a happy parent when I engage myself and my kids with the passion of my heart – languages, stories, songs, outdoor play, and of course anything about the Greco-Roman world. Isn’t it true that happy parents always make happy kids?
Besides, I want Rhea and Remus to see that while I happily spend most of my time with them, my life doesn’t strictly revolve around them. They need to know that their mother does have a passion and other interests. At least for me, this is the best way I come to peace with myself and stay genuine to my passion.
* Remus and Rhea are the “literary” pseudonyms of my two children in real life.
** “king-Midas-Attic-Amphora" Expedition Magazine. (2015): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 2015 Web. 05 Aug 2018 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=21300>
*** Ovid’s Metamorphoses XI. Perseus Digital Library. All translations are mine. I tried to translate the texts as literally as possible to reflect the Latin originals.
**** Image of Midas in the puppet show: https://library.austintexas.gov/event-tags/king-midas-0
***** As a matter of fact, I attempted to teach Rhea the pronunciation of Midas in Greek. The only difference lies in changing the first syllable /mai/ into /mi/. She got it right away but the Greek pronunciation sticks in her mind so well that it makes it hard for her to pronounce it back in English.