Book Review: Mythology

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I first read Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton when I was in high school. It is unlikely that I read the entire thing, since it can be assigned in pieces and that is probably what my teacher did. Either way, closet nerd that I am, Mythology sparked a number of extracurricular exploits, or at least flourished them. My friends and I nicknamed each other from the Greek pantheon. We made jokes related to mythology. We spoke in them. Why? They were interesting to us. R-rated stories masquerading as historical text about the roots of literature and story-telling. And it all came across a little bit like personality types in the decades before Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram would take the kids of the 80s by storm.

I am currently teaching a ninth grade English class. We are in our first unit, which is mythology. Our first week of mythology covered Greek and Roman mythology. (Yes, we are moving fast, doing more of a comparative mythology than an in-depth study.) I like to bring other sources (the main one being Gods and Heroes by Korwin Briggs) to class to do a bit of a show ‘n’ tell and I also love inundating my students with suggested viewing and reading related to our current studies. We have two copies of Mythology in our house—one from high school and one that I picked up along the way from a relative who was downsizing. Since they are both marked up, it is an instance where I don’t want to get rid of either. So, being the still closet nerdy teacher that I am, I decided to read Mythology the week we were covering it in class. It took two. Or maybe closer to three. We have already moved on through Norse mythology and on to African and Egyptian mythology.

Not that Greek and Roman mythology isn’t still super interesting. It is. But Hamilton’s portrayal of it? Well, it’s less of a portrayal and more of an encyclopedia. So you cover stories and characters from a number of the most important texts that remain of Greek and Roman mythology (ie. Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, etc.), laid out in a scholarly and comprehensive way. She’s not going to embellish them: this is not her job. Her job is to present them as translations of excerpts, combining excerpts to give us a complete picture of the story/character (many times reminding us that this picture is reliant on what stories actually survived and from what time period). So, as is always true when an author is telling and not showing, it’s a bit dry, especially concerning the subject matter (though she does reserve the right to occasionally be sarcastic or even humorous).

But it’s special because it is a cohesive, somewhat comprehensive, and clear retelling of the many stories of gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome. It makes me want to read The Odyssey and Iliad, The Aeneid, Medea, and Oedipus Rex, at the least, because no matter how dry you tell it, there is real imagination and juiciness to the tales. I have added a few of them to my current TBR (which, as you may know, is exceedingly long).

There was something that really needled at me while I was reading that I don’t remember from high school. It is possible I didn’t notice. Man, were those ancient myths chock-full of rape and bestiality! And the way Hamilton glazes over it—gods forever “grabbing” or “with” women who are then hiding in caves, pregnant—is, at this point in my life and in human history, unsettling to me. It does make the book more accessible for younger people and less controversial for a more general reading, but it feels a little wrong to basically ignore it. Hardly a god or hero wasn’t born without someone raping someone else, god or man. Gods were forever raping young women, abandoning them, torturing them, and getting it on with hooved creatures of all sorts weather they be a woman in disguise, a goddess in disguise, or just some really handsome livestock. It really makes you wonder about the culture from which these stories arose. Hamilton does remark repeatedly that later Greeks and Romans were turned off by the misbehaving of the gods and tried to sweep the original versions under the rug. It’s enough to make a girl real glad she wasn’t an ancient person, for reals.

It is also interesting—in a much sunnier way—to see the origins of so many things. Some of these things are literary and have their roots back in the mythology of the Greeks. Likewise, some of those literary things are more obvious (Till We Have Faces as the retelling of Cupid and Psyche) and some more subtle (the guard dog, Fluffy, in Harry Potter, sharing some important characteristics and plot-points with Cerberus, the guard dog of Hades). Other allusions go beyond literature, from the naming of Sirius Radio, Amazon, and Nike to phrases like the Midas touch, psychological references like Oedipus Complex and language, ie. “narcissism.” When you thought someone in history was being creative, chances are they were just borrowing from the creativity of the ancient Greeks. It was also interesting to note how our thought (in the western world via Europe) has developed in a line pretty clearly from the ancient Greeks.

In conclusion, I always enjoy reading about the Greek and Roman myths and Hamilton is the classic. Mythology is informative, straight-forward, and logically organized. In future (having read it twice), I will likely use it as a reference while I dive into more creative and derivative stuff, including the classic plays and poems. On my list are The Odyssey, The Iliad, Metamorphoses, The Aeneid, Medea, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Circe, Achilles, and maybe even A Thousand Ships, The Penelopiad, and Mythos by Stephen Fry.

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