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Customer Review

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars By Zeus!, 4 May 2005
This review is from: Mythology (Mentor) (Mass Market Paperback)
Edith Hamilton's very popular 'Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes' is a very basic, very popular and very good text for the introduction of Greek and Roman mythology. This book by Hamilton, simply entitled 'Mythology' is an expansion of the material in the shorter book. Largely, however, it is a repetition of the same material.
In our Western culture, the term 'mythology' is most often equated with these tales, and Hamilton, first writing before World War II, has helped to reinforce that equation with the current generations of readers.
Those looking for the mythological stories of other cultures will be disappointed -- with the exception of a brief section on Norse mythology at the end (about five percent of the entire volume), it covers nothing outside the Greek and Roman pantheons. Of course, part of the difficulty of approaching mythology of other cultures is that, in many instances, it is not mythology to them; or, in the case of mythology, one needs a firmer grounding in the culture and religious aspects of that culture before the mythology becomes accessible.
Hamilton (raised, as I was astonished to discover, in Indiana, where I currently reside) studied at Bryn Mawr, and had a distinguished teacher career in addition to writing this useful text. Hamilton's writing is not complicated and very easy to follow -- this has made her texts selected often for high school and undergraduate courses in Greek and Roman mythology, more frequently perhaps than any other text produced in this century.
Hamilton begins the text with an essay giving an overview of what mythology is, and what the purpose of it was.
'Through it,' she wrote, 'we can retrace the path from civilised man who lives so far from nature, to man who lived in close companionship with nature; and the real interest of the myths is that they lead us back to a time when the world was young and people had a connection with the earth, with trees and seas and flowers and hills, unlike anything we ourselves can feel.'
She proceeds with a brief history of the development of Greek mythology, the origins of the stories lost in the mists of time. She tells of the influences of Greek thought on subsequent developments in thought and religion: 'Saint Paul said the invisible must be understood by the visible. That was not a Hebrew idea, it was Greek.' Unlike most religious constructs, the Greek mythological world tried to make sense of the greater life of the universe in terms that were very human indeed, with a minimum of mystery. 'The terrifying irrational has no place in classical mythology.'
This is not to say, of course, that there were not terrible stories and fantastic creatures -- indeed, the mythological stories are full of them -- Gorgons and hydras and chimaeras dire. But these are mostly metaphorical (and were understood as such), and primarily used for a hero to be made (this same idea has pervaded to the most recent Mission Impossible movie).
Hamilton proceeds after this essay to describe the members of the pantheon, the major and minor gods and goddesses, the ideas of creation, the heroes (human, semi-divine and divine), stories of love and devotion, justice and injustice, and, of course, of warfare, victory, defeat, and courage. Those heroes before the Trojan War, perhaps the Greek-mythological-equivalent of a world war, had battles and dire circumstances to fight and overcome. The Trojan War figured largely in the mythological frameworks of Greece and Rome -- all the gods and goddess were involved in this conflict, it seemed, as were many of the heroes of Greek mythology.
Hamilton, writing in a fairly conservative period of time, and in a fairly conservative culture, sanitised the mythological stories to a large extent. The Greeks were a very human and often rather bawdy bunch; the Romans were even moreso. Much of the sexuality in the mythological stories is omitted, save to demonstrate the less-desirable aspects. Quite often, undergraduates who study mythology are astonished to discover, if they had used Hamilton's text in an earlier high school setting, that there is a lot more sex and violence in the 'real' stories than they had been previously exposed to.
Of course, one of the primary aspects of the mythological tales was not to explain the cosmos or to build complex theological constructs (reason did these, often with help from the myths, but not using the myths as the basis), but rather the illustration of moral truths -- those of honesty, virtue, and courage as primarily valued in Greek and Roman society. Evil befalls those who do not lead a moral life; rewards come to those who do. Of course, there is a bit of whimsy in the cosmos -- bad things happen to good people, etc., even in ancient Greece. The fluctuating personalities of the gods (and the number of them) ultimately gives a satisfying explanation (if not a satisfying reason) why such things might occur.
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Kurt Messick

Location: London, SW1

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