Winged sandals

What with the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens this summer, and the spring release of a Brad Pitt movie having something to do with 'Greeks bearing gifts,' this seems an opportune time to brush up on some Hellenic mythology, from Achilles to Zeus. But fear not, this doesn't mean you have to go back to the dry and text-heavy tomes of your school days - now you have the option of the illustrated and animated resources of your children's school days. If multi-media mythology sounds appealing, simply strap on a pair of Winged Sandals.

As those who still remember their Greek mythology will know, the site's title refers to the unique footwear of Hermes, messenger of the gods (and more recently, upscale clothing and accessories retailer). The artist's interpretation of the immortal emissary, and the messenger's 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' voice make it clear at the outset that this is a site primarily designed to introduce children to its subject matter. (The target age is 6-12 years old.) But while the information is appropriately rudimentary, interested adults can still get a quick refresher course, and won't be bored while supervising their children's visits. (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation production won best e-learning site and best in show at the annual Australian Interactive Media Association awards in February.)

Available in both broadband and dial-up versions (as befitting an educational site), the 'rich' rendition of Sandals uses an interactive Flash-based map of ancient Athens to navigate the various options available - the Amphitheatre features a quartet of animated stories, the Olympic Arena offers interactive games, the Acropolis holds a collection of screensavers, e-cards and desktop wallpapers. (Visitors who prefer titles to landmarks can also use a drop down text index at any time.) Choosing a landmark creates an illustrated category index which occupies the left half of the screen, while specific features usually open into a central popup window.

Of the site's various sections, Storytime is the most engaging, as it recounts legends that include Perseus' battle with the Medusa, and Orpheus' journey into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice. Each story includes a 'cast list,' which links to specific biographies on each character, including a few lines of text, keyword list (mortal/immortal, female/male, etc.), a family tree, and -perhaps one of the most useful features at the site- the ability to hear the proper pronunciation of each character's name. (Someone who has never been properly introduced to Eurydice or Antigone might make reasonable but wildly incorrect assumptions about inflections -yuri-dice? anti gone?- and find themselves banned from Mount Olympus' better parties.)

One of the animations, "The Sad Tale of Orpheus and Eurydice" comes across as a sort of cartoon music video that is at times reminiscent of anything from Yellow Submarine to Kim Possible to South Park - but keeping its young audience in mind, even during this dark tale, nothing will come across as too frightening. (Even the three-headed dog Cerberus seems to be smiling more than snarling.)

That said, the site producers (drawing on the knowledge of Melbourne University's department of classics and archaeology) were also determined to avoid the "Disneyfication" of the stories, so the tale remains true to its origins, and there is no manufactured happy ending for our hero. Each of the four stories has it's own style, visually and in its method of presentation. (While the other three myths are narrated, the aforementioned Orpheus story is presented without words. An optional "Director's Cut" fills in the details with a voiceover by Hades himself.)

Play Games offers such diversions as helping Icarus gather feathers for his wings, or spending some DJ time as a Greek mix master. Make and Do includes home-made Greek fashions and card games. Who's Who holds biographies of more than 100 humans, gods and monsters, and History takes a look at life in ancient Greece - from the great philosophers, to taking in a show at the local amphitheatre. Finally, Ask the Oracle grants visitors an audience with the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle. (Of course, Oracles are notoriously non-specific. My question about the next day's weather received the response, "When you hold the unhonoured in honour, then you will plough the land." ...tricky...)

For its part, the HTML low-bandwidth version of the site has all the same critical content (including the same versions of the cartoons), but less segueing animations and fewer popups. Some may actually prefer it for its more familiar navigation bar along the top of the browser window.

Entertaining though it is, Sandals is not without its hiccups - such as the constant popup JavaScript 'error' messages. (Though as soon as I closed the 'warnings,' I was able to proceed without any trouble.) More serious were the popup windows that opened without necessary scroll bars ("History"), illegibly small and non-resizable text ("Who's Who" listings), and a scattering of game features that didn't seem to work during my visit. All of these are probably the result of insufficient Mac testing, and won't affect the majority of surfers - but they're surprising oversights considering the caliberly of the site and its recent award. Still, life never did run smooth on Mount Olympus.

Winged Sandals can be found at http://www.wingedsandals.com/

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