Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book: Mythology

(Image from C/W Mars Catalog)

Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton (1942) is really one of those books that you should not judge by its cover, metaphorically speaking. When I first began reading it, I was horrified by some of the statements being made about the gods and ancient Greek culture. Things like leaving Demeter and Dionysus out of the list of the twelve Olympians (p. 25-26) and claiming “The terrifying irrational has no place in classical mythology. Magic, so powerful in the world before and after Greece, is almost nonexistent” (p. 18) immediately struck me as odd and against Greek mythology as I learned it. It seemingly ignores the supernatural abilities of the gods and their often irrational behavior in rewarding and punishing mortals; not to mention the existence of Hecate, goddess of witchcraft. Other statements such as,
If Hesiod did write [the Theogony], then a humble peasant living in a lonely farm far from cities, was the first man in Greece to wonder how everything had happened, the world, the sky, mankind, and to think out an explanation. Homer never wondered about anything.
p. 22
are downright dangerous for anyone just learning about mythology for the first time, since it incorrectly portrays the development of classical mythology in its written form.
It is not that I fault Hamilton for anything that she says. The most alarmingly wrong statements come from the introduction and the first two chapters that identify the gods and their relationships, but throughout the book there are little cultural statements and interpretations that reflect the scholarship of the time. It is very important to keep in mind that this book was written in 1942 and scholarship has changed in the intervening 60+ years. The way we interpret most of these stories and our understanding of ancient Greek society has changed so that some of the ways Hamilton summarizes the stories leaves out important pieces or presents facts that are now considered incorrect. Normally, this would not be a big deal, but I know that this book is used as summer reading for AP European History in New York, which is often the first introduction for high school students to Greek mythology. Without proper instruction, this book has the potential to give students the wrong impression about some of these tales and Greek society.
With proper instruction, however, this book is actually much better than the alternative “Age of Fable” in Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch (1855). Hamilton includes a brief introduction to each of her tales where she identifies the original sources that she draws upon. She also covers the stories as completely as possible by sometimes referring to multiple sources rather than following any one account. Bulfinch, by comparison, primarily summarizes Ovid’s Metamorphoses and does not go into detail about alternative versions that may have existed. The one up side to Bulfinch’s work is that he references modern works of poetry and fiction that make allusions to the Greek tales, broadening the reader’s understanding of why some of these tales remain important today.
On the whole, the fact that this book is still being taught in schools as an introduction to Greek mythology drives me crazy. However, I understand that there is no other alternative that I know of that works as well at giving a brief introduction to the tales of Greek mythology that is still easy to read and understand. I know that not all high school teachers have studied classical mythology extensively, so this book makes an excellent addition to the curriculum. I can only hope that this book, despite its inaccuracies, does its job well of getting more students interested in Greek mythology so they can gain a more rounded understanding of our modern culture and literature.
Bulfinch, T. (1998). Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York: The Modern Library.
Hamilton, E. (1942). Mythology: Timeless tales of gods and heroes. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Note: I have chosen not to address the second section of Hamilton's book which is on Norse mythology because it is too short (only 17 pages). Although it does a similarly good job of giving a brief introduction to Norse mythology, I feel that it is too brief in its treatment of the material and simply reading The Prose Edda would itself provide a better introduction.

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