by Gilly Cameron Cooper

Did you know that hero of the Minotaur’s labyrinth gave his name to a particular style of haircut, the Thesean tonsure? Or that prehistoric sheep, like the ones that Odysseus and his men slung themselves beneath to escape from the Cyclops, were probably – and conveniently - larger than the domesticated breeds of today?

Surprisingly useful facts for an author briefed to produce cartoon books of selected Greek myths – Minotaur, The Trojan Horse, and Cyclops - for a core readership of 12-year-old American boys with reading difficulties. Each title, published in response to demand for ‘high-interest, low-ability’ books has sold nearly 40,000 copies of each title worldwide, and have recently reprinted.

Homer took around 170,000 words to tell the story of the Trojan Wars in The Iliad, and didn’t even include the Trojan Horse bit. I had to condense a decade of Trojan Wars, the ten-year-long Odyssey, and the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, into a mere 48 pages each. Cartoon-style pictures filled most of the pages, so why the need for such obscure facts?

More than meets the eye
Wolfgang Petersen, director/producer of the epic film Troy, admitted that at the beginning of the project: “ I had no idea about this whole world, what it looked like.” The illustrators, from a studio in India, brought up on a gilded oriental culture and mythology of lotus flowers, meditation and many-limbed gods, had even less idea. I had to describe for them from scratch a parallel world of magical myth and everyday life in Late Bronze Age Europe. Their finished artworks, in graphic cartoon style, may look crude, but each picture masks a wealth of information.

What sort of tools and pegs did Epeius use to make the Trojan horse, they needed to know (wooden mallet, adze). What did army commanders, foot-soldiers, priestesses, and ordinary people wear? What did they, and their houses, lamps, weapons, ships look like?
For my 8-14-year olds struggling to read, pace and action were more important. They needed to be carried along by bold pictures, narrative neatly contained in ‘story cells’, ‘speech bubbles’, and a generous sprinkling of boy-friendly ‘ugh!’s and ‘aah!’s, plus blood and guts, shock and horror (but no sex). All romping along to a cliffhanger at the end of each page-turn to compel them to read on. As an author and editor, I, like the movie-makers, wanted the world of Theseus and Odysseus to be represented as authentically as possible, and guessed that the illustrators were unlikely to find inspiration in downtown Delhi.

So I sank slowly into a swamp of archaeological and historical detail, conflicting accounts and interpretations, not only of the myths themselves, but of archaeological evidence. Like Troy’s scriptwriter, David Benioff, in creating the storyboards, I had to combine “research with imagination”. Many telling historical details and accuracy were lost in cartoon illustration and text, but in the course of my research, I ventured on my own odyssey into a real world behind the myths.

Myth versus history
No one version of a myth is ‘true’, for myths began as spoken stories, and as they passed down through generations, they changed like a passed-on message in the party game of Chinese Whispers. As they travelled, they were adapted to suit different peoples and places. The Greek historian and essayist, Plutarch, used several versions of the Minotaur myth to write a literary account of Theseus’ life, and so did I, to tailor the stories to suit my modern readers.

In the 1860s, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann set off to discover the location of Troy, “with Homer in one hand and a spade in the other”, as Lesley Fitton, archaeological advisor to the film, put it. Until then, people had always assumed that Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were fictitious. But Schliemann’s excavations at Hissarlik (aka Troy and Ilium) and Mycenae, and the discovery of other ancient sites at Knossos, Pylos and elsewhere, firmly established that stories have roots in real places and actual events. Myths adapt and embellish the world of prehistoric peoples for the purposes of a good story, literary effect and even propaganda, with glorified protagonists and plenty of intervention of supernatural forces to suit the mood of the times. A myth might bend key elements of tribal history, condensing the conquest of a new land or decline of an empire, which might have taken place over hundreds of years, into an entertaining allegorical tale: the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur, for example, could be an allegory for the decline of the Minoan Empire.

Setting in time
Minotaur, Trojan Horse, and Cyclops – to put the stories in correct chronological order – are anchored in the middle to late periods of the Bronze Age, when Greece was peppered with city-states, each with its own king, and each vying for control of more land to farm and people to bend to their will. Over 4,000 years ago, a kingdom with its centre at Knossos on Crete, was commanding the pivotal trade routes crossing the Aegean Sea, and increasing in power and wealth. It developed into Europe’s first great civilization, dubbed the ‘Minoan Age’ by British archaeologist Arthur Evans, after the legendary King Minos, . The civilization reached its peak around 1,700 BC, but its days were numbered.

From about 1.600 BC, aggressive Myceneans began to assert themselves, wresting control of the trade routes and soon becoming the greatest force in mainland Greece. Their power centre was Mycenae, home of the mighty Agamemnon, who led the Greek forces into Troy in the wake of the wooden horse. Historians date the city’s fall to around 1,250 BC. The following century was the beginning of the end for the winning side too, for Mycenean dominance began to evaporate, weakened by inter-state conflicts and pirate raids, and their cities were destroyed and abandoned.

Cyclops is last in the sequence of the three stories, for it follows the fall of Troy, as part of the eventful 10-year journey to his island home of Ithaca by the ill-fated but resourceful Odysseus, overseer of the Trojan Horse ruse.

Background pictures of everyday life
When Athenian captives arrived at Knossos (Theseus may exist only in myth, but taking hostages was a fact of life in Minoan times) – they would have been impressed by its wealth and grandeur. Minoan craftsmen were renowned throughout the Mediterranean for the skill and beauty of their fine metalwork, delicate jewelery, and graceful, decorative vessels crafted from clay, obsidian, and rock crystal. Knossos was the heart of a civilization that had grown rich from trade, the administrative, economic and political powerhouse of the southern Aegean. The Minoans were literate, developing a form of writing, thought to be an early form of Greek, which was lost in the Dark Ages that followed the collapse of their civilization. The numbers and diversity of their fleets of ships, both mercantile and military, were unprecedented. The palace itself was a network of royal residences, state apartments, interconnecting courtyards and alleys, workshops, store rooms, and vaults where an estimated 18,000 gallons of olive oil were kept.

The Knossos archaeological finds and subsequent restoration of the palace give a vivid picture of Minoan lifestyle architectural style and the colourful opulence of its decoration, and provided a wealth of reference for the artists to draw from. What became known as the ‘Town Mosaic’ decorating a palace room, incorporated glazed limestone tiles depicting two- and three-storey houses, their walls painted with geometric patterns. A little model of oxen pulling a cart revealed that spoked wheels were around at the time, and another of a sedan chair, gave us an idea of how King Minos might have travelled to the harbour to meet the hostages. Frescos and statuettes of gods and priests showed not only costume style, but the patterns on the fabric - although such detail has no place in the flat simplicity of cartoon illustrations. It was important, though to include symbols of the bull in the palace scenes. The bull was a potent symbol of Minoan power: the main entrance to the palace and many of the walls were topped by two-pronged bull horn symbols. Wild bulls were hunted in the forests of Crete and depicted on 15th-century BC hammered gold cups found at Vaphio, near Sparta.

For interior scenes, such as the feast where Aegeus recognizes Theseus as his son, or when Paris met Helen in Sparta, the artists needed reference for everyday life in the Bronze Age. This was amply afforded by drawings and photographs from archaeological digs: tripods, basins and pots of flattened and shaped sheets of bronze riveted together; graceful ewers, cups, plates and pithoi, some plain, others beautifully decorated in geometric or naturalistic designs.

Mycenean wealth and style grew more out of aggression and conquest than had the peaceful culture and trading world of the Minoans. Whereas the palace at Knossos had no defensive walls, Mycenean hilltop cities were encompassed by walls so massive they were believed to have been made by the giant, one-eyed monument builders and blacksmiths of the mythological world, the Cyclopes. Whether leading players such as King Minos and Agamemnon actually existed, is questionable: they may have been compound representations of more than one ruler. The magnificent and colorfully decorated palace of Pylos, in the southern Peloponnese, for example, which was discovered by archaeologist Carl Blegen in 1939, is featured in both The Odyssey and The Iliad as the stronghold of Nestor. But in the excavations, no evidence has ever been found of a king of that name.

The story of Odysseus’ return home takes place mainly in rural settings, and as I run walking holidays in the Cyclades, I was able to provide plenty of photographic reference of island scenery. The Cyclops’ cave illustration is based on a photo of a mountain cave on Naxos in the Cyclades, although the giants’ home island has actually been identified as Tripani, off the coast of Sicily (where, in the volcanic furnaces beneath Mount Etna, they forged thunderbolts for Zeus). Scenes of Spetses, Amorgos, Paros and Naxos feature in the pictures; I sent the artists photographs of of olive trees and spiny Mediterranean scrub, and when the editor asked “what sort of flowers would be on Mount Ida, from where Aenaeus looked over the burning ruins of Troy, I sent close-up portraits of Anemone coronaria – but you wouldn’t know it from the final artwork!

Who was Who?
The characters in the cartoon book needed to look different from each other. A Greek child has friends with names like Theseus and Odysseus, but 10-year-old Dean from Iowa will find such names unpronounceable and hard to read. He will not identify with such characters nor distinguish one from the other. Homer was often sparse in describing physical appearance: dark-haired (Hector) or red-haired Menelaus seemed often to be epithets used to make the line scan. ‘God-like’ was liberally applied to several heroic figures. The poet is more expansive on Odysseus, of whom I gradually built up a picture as being thick-set and dark-bearded, with short legs in relation to his body, more impressive sitting down than standing up, with a scar on his thigh, from being wounded by a wild boar. Theseus’ interesting haircut, the shaved forehead, which was described by Plutarch in Parallel Lives, was a useful identification tip. All of this was passed on to the illustrators, just in case they could put it to good use.

In The Trojan Horse fighting scenes – of which there had to be several to appeal to the boy readers – I was asked to highlight the differences between the opposing sides – although in the final illustrations, the only obvious distinction was that the Greeks were in red, the Trojans in blue. I suggested to the illustrators that the Trojans could be modeled on their own appearance: darker, finer-featured and smaller-framed than the Greeks. The Trojan Wars were, after all, a symbolic battle between Europe and Asia. Trojans and Spartan soldiers should have had hair longer than the shoulder-length cut favoured by the Greeks, and the Trojans should generally be clean shaven in contrast to the Greek facial fashion of pointy beards and no moustaches. Greek commanders would have worn body armour and shields of bronze, while Trojans had lighter, leather breast plates and shields of stretched oxhide. Spartan soldiers in the Greek forces could be identified by high-crested helmets. For weapons and chariots, there were plenty of finds from excavations at Mycenae, Tyrins, Knossos and other sites to work from, such as a beautifully crafted 1600 BC dagger sheath, or the 13th-century BC ‘Warrior Vase’.

The artists completed over 500 illustrations in 70 days. There was no time for a nit-picking author to point out discrepancies between the reference provided and the final artwork. It’s the bigger picture that matters. If those 8-14-year-old children are enticed into reading by bold, action cartoon books, perhaps they will one day move on to Homer’s epic poems and histories of Bronze Age Greece.
Minotaur, Trojan Horse and Cyclops are published by TickTock Books Ltd in the UK, and Gareth Stevens in the US. Other titles in the series are Medusa, Pandora, and Hercules; a compendium volume is about to be published.

Gilly Cameron Cooper lives and works – as a professional writer and editor, and co-director of a walking holiday company ( – in the Cycladic islands and London. She is consultant editor to the 2010 edition of Top 10 Athens Guide  (published by Dorling Kindersley) and writes on travel and culture for Odyssey and the UK press. Her books include How the World Began, an insight into global creation myths, Beatrix Potter’s Lake District, and Walking London’s Waterways.