While it may not be obvious at first glance, classical mythology lurks in the crowded bookshelves of our museum. It hides in old readers and permeates the volumes in our poetry section. Although we have a few books with an explicit classical focus, most of our classical mythology is broken up into bits and scattered in poetry, mythology, history and hero books. It isn’t uncommon to see an intersection between classics and education, as the connection has its roots in Renaissance humanism which has trickled through time and across seas. It is however interesting to study the ways in which classical mythology was taught in Canadian schools, and question why stories from millennia past have had such a persistent role in the education of Canadian students. 

One reason why Greek and Roman myths are frequently found in children’s books is due to the valuable lessons they provide. Canadian students were expected to display virtue in every aspect of their lives, as were the students of ancient Greece and Rome who wrote, repeated, and memorized these myths. The timeless virtues they taught, such as patriotism, bravery, self control and hard work resonated with early 20th century society. Their passionate patriotism, strict gender roles and capitalist economy required that these virtues be instilled in every child for them to become successful adults. One good example of this is the poem of the Lotos-Eaters, which is based on a story from the Odyssey and written by Lord Alfred Tennyson. The poem was featured on pages 34-37 of The Canadian Book of Prose and Verse book two, circa 1932.

In this tale, some sailors land on an island populated by people called the Lotos-Eaters, who feed on the magical fruit of the lotos plant. The magical effects of the plant prevent the sailors from ever wanting to leave the island again, as they desire only the pleasure of the lotos and forget the family and country they left behind. This story could be an allegory for many issues, including addiction, but it is perhaps most obviously criticism towards a hedonistic, lazy lifestyle. This tale therefore would have taught children not to allow their desire for leisure and pleasure to override their work ethic, which would have been especially important for young people growing up on family farms. Most students attending one-room schools had come from rural backgrounds, where they would be expected to complete a long list of chores before and after school. Laziness, therefore, was not to be tolerated, and a strong work ethic was absolutely necessary.

Another example of a myth with a message about virtue is Horatius by Thomas Babington Macaulay, which can be found in pages 306-319 of Our Heritage, and pages 247-258 of The High School Reader. There is also a version of it adapted by Alfred J. Church in Myths and Legendary Heroes Vol. II and another adaptation in C.F. Strong’s 1953 Heroes of Olden Days book one. The presence of this tale in four separate books speaks to its popularity in the classroom, and it was popular for good reason. In the story, the Etruscan king Lars Porsena attacks Rome and Horatius earns great honour by defending a major bridge called the Pons Sublicius from the invading army. When the other men stepped back as the bridge began to collapse, “brave Horatius” remained, and when the bridge did collapse, Horatius survived with the aid of the river god Tiber. It is clear throughout the poem that Horatius is intended to be admired as a hero, and the popularity of this myth provides a glimpse of the expectations placed on young boys in early Canadian education.


We have many books with a sole focus on bravery, heroes and legends, including Heroes of Olden Days book one by C.F. Strong and Short Stories of Great Lives by Jessie E. McEwen. McEwans’ collection of heroic figures includes Alexander the Great  and Julius Caesar, but also various “great” men from a range of time periods. Both of these books were heavily focused on male heroes, and this was likely because the books were intended to inspire young boys.  Even as women were granted more autonomy and independence over the 20th century, boys were consistently expected to be strong and brave, to seek fame and honour. These hero books and the tale of Horatius demonstrate the virtues expected of boys from a very early age.


While it is true that Greek and Roman myths teach important, universal lessons to children, mythologies from all across the globe can be just as effective in communicating these messages. This begs the question: why was classical mythology favoured over other, equally rich mythologies? Looking through our gallery there is a clear preference. For example, the book Myths from Many Lands from 1907 advertises itself as a diverse compilation of foreign myths, yet more than half the book is dedicated to Greek and Roman myths, and all remaining myths are from Scandinavia minus one from Japan. A second book titled Myths and Legendary Heroes from 1927 has a more diverse collection but still shows a preference for Greek and Roman mythology, as well as other mythologies from white cultural groups. Altogether the myths and heroes sections from Greece and Rome make up about a hundred and fifty pages of the book. In contrast, myths from India is slightly more than twenty pages long, myths from Japan is even shorter at about fifteen, and there is only one myth from Indigenous North America. The reasons for this preference are plenty, but there are three major considerations to be made. Firstly, racism was all too common in the early 1900s, and including myths from people of non-white ethnicities in these books meant not only giving those cultures credit for their intellectual creations, but also meant allowing those ideas to influence white children. Racism, slavery and exploitation depend upon a superiority complex which the oppressor can use to justify treating the oppressed group as subhuman. By acknowledging the oppressed culture’s intellectual property and teaching it to their own children, they would be jeopardizing this superiority complex.

Sometimes mythology from non-European cultures was actually insulted in these books, as seen in the introduction to Myths from Many Lands where they claim that the Pacific Islanders were “not so poetical” as the Greeks and Romans because they perceived the sunrise to be a red knife cutting through the night and not the fingers of a goddess reaching over the horizon. The bias in this comparison is easily apparent when one realizes that giant fingers are only poetic given the right context, and a knife slicing open the night sky to reveal the day can absolutely be a beautiful image. It was, and still is, quite common to assume that the practices of other cultures must be foreign and strange before taking the time to truly understand them.

A second reason for the preference towards Greek and Roman mythology is history. Europe has repeatedly turned to classical antiquity for guidance in almost all areas of life and study. Perhaps the most well known resurgence of classical culture in Europe is the Renaissance, where art, education, religion and politics were shaped by a desire to revive the perceived glory of ancient Greece and Rome. William Shakespeare was a playwright and poet during the English Renaissance who took inspiration from classical antiquity. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – featured in book two of The Canadian Book of Prose and Verse is set in Athens, and some characters have names inspired by classical figures, such as Lysander whose name is taken from a Spartan admiral. The 1951 book Our Heritage by Ryerson MacMillan also contains a poem by Shakespeare titled “Orpheus.” which is centred around the famous Greek mythological musician. Generally, Shakespeare was quite popular in 19th and early 20th century British culture. His works have been praised and taught for centuries after his death, and he is considered to be a source of pride for the English people. His poems and plays, therefore, have helped to preserve the sanctity of classical culture within Britain and her colonies. 

In addition to racism and historical connections, the people of Britain and its colonies also hold a deep favouritism for Greek and Roman mythology due to its perceived connection to British heritage. A large portion of Europe, particularly in the areas which were once controlled by the Roman empire, consider themselves to have received cultural inheritance from ancient Greece and Rome. In some ways this is very accurate, as language, law, religion, philosophy, medicine and politics in many European countries and colonies have received direct inspiration from Greece and Rome. It is however sometimes misleading to think of Western and Northwestern Europeans, and the settlers living in their colonies, as the descendants of the ancient classical world.

This mentality has unfortunately led to the exploitation of Greece, Italy and other areas in and around the Mediterranean. Under the guise of ‘retrieving cultural heritage,’ Britain, France, America and other powerful nations have stolen cultural remains – often utilizing violence – and still refuse to return them even today. This is in part because the citizens of these countries had been taught from a young age that ancient Greek and Roman heritage was theirs to take pride in. This mentality has unfortunately led to the exploitation of Greece, Italy and other areas in and around the Mediterranean. Under the guise of ‘retrieving cultural heritage,’ Britain, France, America and other powerful nations have stolen cultural remains – often utilizing violence – and still refuse to return them even today. This is in part because the citizens of these countries had been taught from a young age that ancient Greek and Roman heritage was theirs to take pride in.

An example of this mindset is seen in the poetry book Our Heritage. On page 279, MacMillan writes, “Phidias, the greatest sculptor of Greece, superintended all the works of art, the crowning glory of which was the Parthenon, the remains of which form the pride of the British Museum.” Here there is no acknowledgement of the crime committed against Greece when the British stole those remains for themselves, only the notion of British pride in a book of poems about Canadian heritage. This statement about the Parthenon is also the entry that precedes Pericles’ speech The Government of Athens, the inclusion of which echoes Canada’s appreciation for democracy and the intellectual heritage that we have, in a sense, received from Athens.

Another display of the Western and Northwestern European fixation on ancient Greece specifically is the poem The Isles of Greece, which is included on page 60 of the Canada Book of Prose and Verse book two, and page 211 of The High School Reader.

It was written by Lord George Gordon Byron, who was born in England but moved to Greece later in life to fight for Greek independence against the Ottomans.

It was written by Lord George Gordon Byron, who was born in England but moved to Greece later in life to fight for Greek independence against the Ottomans.

Despite his English origins, he writes “And where are they? And where art thou – My country? On thy voiceless shore,” about the nation of Greece. He expresses a sense of mourning towards the loss of Ancient Greece, or in his own words, “a patriot’s shame,” and he claims that he would rather die singing than accept the “Latin fraud” and “Turkish force” which had overtaken the Greek people, because he could not live in a “land of slaves.” This poem – present in at least two common Canadian classroom books – sounds as though it should have been written by a native Greek author, but this sense of patriotism towards ancient Greece does exist in Britain and other European nations. In some ways today it is still very present. Queen’s University here in Kingston has a classics department and students have the option of majoring, minoring or taking a medial in classical studies. This intensive focus on classics is also seen in Black, Jewish and French studies at the university, which shows progress in diversifying the humanities, but archaeology opportunities at Queens still have to be accessed through the classics department, and the amount of attention other ancient civilizations receive at the university isn’t at all comparable to the amount of attention devoted to classical civilization. This shows that although modern and early modern history are diversifying, ancient history in the Canadian education system is still largely biased towards Greece and Rome. 

With this knowledge of racist bias, historical connections and perceived heritage, we can begin to understand why the life lessons taught by Greek and Roman myths were favoured over the stories and messages of other, equally creative cultures. Greek and Roman mythology was at the very least familiar, and often something that Western and Northwestern Europeans saw as an inheritance from their own ancestors. While Western law, history, language, drama and even medicine are subjects that require some acknowledgment of Greek and Roman achievements, mythology is not a subject which necessitates any particular cultural focus. The favouritism shown towards classical mythology in books like Myths from Many Lands and Myths and Legendary Heroes was a choice, inspired by the greater societal appreciation for classical antiquity and the prejudice held against people of colour. Acknowledging the role classical mythology had in childrens’ education and why it was chosen for this role provides a greater insight into greater Canadian culture in the early 20th century. 

Sources Consulted from Museum Collection:

The Young Folks Treasury Vol. II Myths and Legendary Heroes,  (2017.1.1)

Short Stories of Great Lives by Jessie E. McEwan, (2016.137.1)

Myths from Many Lands, Children’s Story Hour 2, (1978. 97.3)

The Canada Book of Prose and Verse Book 2, (1981.14.2)

Our Heritage (2011.4.2)

The High School Reader (2012.1.7)

Heroes of Olden Days, Book One by C.F. Strong, (1978.87.1)

Britain’s Story Told in Pictures, (1979.164.24)

Online Sources: