Greek Week: Mythology

Thursday, March 28, 2013

by Edith Hamilton

I’ve always loved mythology and even took a Classical Mythology class in college, but it’s been years since I really studied it. Despite that many of the Greek gods’ names are ingrained in our collective minds: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, Hades, but it’s easy to loose track of how they are connected. This 1942 publication is a simple but complete overview of mythology. 

The book is broken down into the following seven sections:

1: The Gods, the Creation, and the Earliest Heroes (Both Greek and Roman names)
2: Stories of Love and Adventure (Cupid & Psyche and the Quest for the Golden Fleece)
3: The Great Heroes before the Trojan War (Perseus, Theseus, Hercules, and Atalanta)
4: The Heroes of the Trojan War (Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas)
5: The Great Families of Mythology (Atreus, Thebes, and Athens)
6: The Less Important Myths (Midas, etc)
7: The Mythology of the Norsemen (Odin, Thor, Loki, etc) 

One reason mythology can be confusing is because all of the gods have at least two names: the Greek name and the Roman name. For example, Zeus is the Greek name for the ruler of Olympus and the same god is called Jupiter in Roman culture. There are also multiple versions of all of the myths. Different authors told their own interpretation and over the years the story begins to contradict itself. Hamilton removes this confusion, making the stories more accessible and breaking everything down by family tree and relationships. She also sights her sources at the beginning of each section. So if she compiled one version of the story from four different authors’ versions she explains what she did and what the differences are. 

That’s the reason this book is so excellent. Hamilton collected dozens of authors’ works into one edition. She took pieces from plays, epic poems, etc. to create on cohesive narrative. She includes an important element from one author in the story written by another author so that everyone’s actions make sense. Then she put them in chronological order within the narrative of the story. For example, she includes the Judgment of Paris, which is assumed to be the real reason for the Trojan War, before Virgil and Homer’s story of the Trojan War itself.

There are many themes that remain the same throughout the mythology. A major one is the attempt to beat fate and failing miserably. Heroes and rulers frequently heard prophesies about their lives. Then they would try to outsmart those predictions, like Oedipus’ father trying to kill his son when he was a baby or Cronus eating his children. They were trying to prevent their own deaths, but their actions inevitably led to the fulfillment of the prophesy.

“To attempt to act in such a way that the prophesy would be made void was as futile as to set oneself against the decrees of fate.” 

Another common theme is the power and cruelty of the gods. There is example after example of their quick tempers and over reactions. They often cause madness in a person to extract their revenge. Then that person (Hercules, Agave, etc.) kills their own families. Other times a god would fall in love with a mortal and regardless of whether or not that love was returned, it usually meant death and destruction for that person. 

The tale of Cupid and Psyche was won of my favorites. It’s all about true love and trust as opposed the stories of brute force where the gods just take what they want. They are a couple that truly love each other and work even harder to find each other once they are separated because they know real love is worth the pain.

The final section covers Norse mythology. There are many similarities with Greek mythology. Asgard is their equivalent to Greece’s Olympus, Thor is similar to Zeus, etc. The writing and proverbs is less poetic, but it’s still interesting. 

"Brave men can live well anywhere. A coward dreads all things."

The book wraps up with a section of family trees. I flagged this break down early on and added notes as I went. It seems like every major family line is connected to the others and the trees helped me keep it all straight. 

BOTTOM LINE: This book covers so much ground, compiling hundreds of years of Greek literature into one volume. The work is priceless and my copy is flagged and highlighted for future reference. I’d highly recommended it to anyone who loves Greek mythology. It might be a little dry for those who aren’t already interested. It would also be a valuable resource for anyone reading modern Greek literature, like The Song of Achilles or the Percy Jackson series. 

"According to the most modern idea, a real myth has nothing to do with religion. It is an explanation of something in nature."

“They had learned that every sin causes fresh sin; every wrong brings another in its train.”

Image from here


Sandy Nawrot said...

This book is actually required reading for my daughter's Honors English class this year (9th grade). I don't know if she has read it or not, but she seems to know quite a bit about the gods so maybe she has! Maybe I need to borrow it!

Meytal Radzinski said...

I have a special place in my heart for this book, if only because it was my first "grown-up" introduction to mythology. I checked it out of the school library in sixth grade because I thought the old binding looked cool and discovered the amazing content accidentally. There was just so much to learn here, even when I recognized many of the stories already. It didn't bore me for a second...

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I'm jealous of all the students who have this in their curriculum. I wish I'd been introduced to it earlier.

Biblibio - I love those books. There are so many that will always be special to me because of when I discovered them in my life.

Allie said...

I think I mentioned that my mythology class in the fall had this as the main text. I loved the book as a whole, but the way the curriculum was set up (by the previous teacher who taught the class and who gave me all of her materials), we only used it sparingly. The kids hated it-so many of them though Hamilton's writing was too complicated (I'm blaming it on my poor teaching and the fact I didn't follow my gut on the curriculum), but I love this title. I actually am planning on rereading it this summer in case I am teaching the class again!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Allie - I wonder what I would have thought of it in high school. I read The Odyssey as a sophomore and loved it. Sometimes the fact that it's required reading makes it hard for some kids.

mercury said...

I feel I missed out on understanding so much poetry because I didn't know much about these myths. This sounds like a great one to put on my wish list. It might even help me do some crossword clues!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

mercury - It was really fun to learn how all of the myths were connected!