Through the myths of time

2nd May 1997 at 01:00


LAND OF THE FIVE SUNS. By Kay McManus. British Museum Press. Pounds 6. 99 each

Myths have always been used to pass down values and beliefs. They have dealt with courage and fear, love and hate, life and death. These books link the magical and the concrete and show how fantastic and often frightening explanations of the big human questions seemed reasonable to past peoples.

They do this in three ways. First, the myths are explained to fictional children who live inside the culture. Stone Turtle tells Aztec stories to his little brother, Two Rabbit Leaping Frog. They are the sons of a rich merchant, who trades in cotton, cocoa, precious feathers and turquoise.

The stories of Isis and Osiris are explained to two poor sisters who earn money singing at funerals in the Valley of the Dead and are talent-spotted by a priest to play the parts of goddesses at the funeral of an Apis Bull.

Second, the stories are beautifully illustrated by artefacts and pictures: a bronze figure of an Apis Bull, a stone statue of Isis and Osiris, paintings from papyrus rolls and tombs, pictures from Aztec books showing, for example, the founding of Tenochtitlan.

Finally, the reasons for apparently strange beliefs, rituals and symbols are explained to the children in the story. Humans try to please Aztec gods by offering them blood for fear that the sun will not rise. All people are made from the tears of joy and tears of anger of the creator, Ra Atun, which is why people feel joy as well as anger.

Through myths we can compare beliefs and values. The Aztecs are rewarded in death for courage, self-sacrifice and bravery in battle or in childbirth. Osiris gives everlasting life as shining spirits to those who have harmed no one in life.

Such works may be useful when OFSTED asks you about developing cultural, moral and spiritual awareness.

Hilary Cooper is a lecturer at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster

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