Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.
Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter.
The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.
Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.
Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia. It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing. If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.