It's All in the Name
It's All in the NameSubmitted by: Anthony 19 Nov 2012 - 12:11
I've been sitting in a darkened room, rocking quietly back and forth, since Broadhurst, doyenne of The Bookseller's Paperback Previews, described our company in her column as "the ludicrously named Head of Zeus". It's probably not a good idea to bandy words with Sarah B, whose occasional acidity is more than matched by her acuity. But I shall make a full and frank confession of how our name came to be.
The Head of Zeus is first and foremost a tribute to the awesome genius of the Ancient Greeks who laid the foundations of western civilization. The books they left behind are the core backlist of western literature and much else. I used to own a handsome B format edition of Homer's Iliad, well thumbed and annotated in the margins by a previous owner. What made it special was the exquisite Greek typography, the fact that the marginal notes were in latin, and that the vellum bound edition was published in 1525. My grandfather acquired it in Rome a hundred years ago, and his great grandson has it now. It is astonishing to think that, when this edition was printed at the height of the Renaissance, more than 20 centuries had already passed since the Iliad first hit the charts as a bestselling audio book.
Our name is not a tribute to Zeus himself but to his daughter Athene, the grey-eyed goddess of wisdom, later known to the Romans as Minerva. According to Greek myth, Zeus, an incorrigible philanderer, is told by one of his many girlfriends that she is pregnant. He thereupon swallows her in order to conceal the evidence of his infidelity from his long-suffering wife Hera. But the unborn child, unlike her unfortunate mother, is immortal. In due course Athene is delivered, fully formed and armour clad, from a cyst on her father's head, and adopted as their patron deity, first by the citizens of Athens and latterly by a nascent publishing enterprise in Clerkenwell Green.
Athene's symbol is the owl. It makes a beautiful colophon. Ours is adapted from a sixth century BCE Athenian four drachma silver coin which I bought from Messrs Spink in Southampton Row. The owl is not just a symbol of wisdom but a much-loved creature found in more than 400 species across the nocturnal planet.
So there you have it. Yes, it is pretentious, grandiose and fanciful, perhaps even ludicrous, especially for a toddler of a publishing house like ourselves. But no apologies. You have to start somewhere, and there's no harm in setting your sights on Olympus.