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on 18 July 2017
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VINE VOICEon 24 November 2010
Two other entries in this Very Short Introduction series can be seen as companion volumes to the present one. They are Classics, by Mary Beard & John Henderson, and Myth by Robert A. Segal. I would recommend reading those two - in either order - and then this one, although they each stand very well alone.

Morales discusses various interpretations of the role of myth in Western culture, its functions and significance. Although she distances herself from works that restrict themselves to narrations and summaries of the myths themselves, she does include a list of Classical deities and their attributes, unapologetically admitting, "I am having my cake and eating it by including this". But the focus throughout is very much on the nature and function of myth rather than its content. The chapter on Freudian psychoanalysis is particularly interesting.

She writes very well, often with a light touch and with frequent popular culture references.

The book concludes with a useful 5-page Timeline - from 800 BC, "Early Greece" to 2007, the publication of this book - a comprehensive Reference section, and a very useful Further Reading section.

If you want an understanding of myth, how it evolves and how it continues to be relevant, you should read this book.
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As with many of these 'A Very Short Introductions' you will be disappointed if what you are looking for is a basic guide to the subject. OUP's brief seems to be to find people who have interesting things to say about the subject in question and to get them to write about their ideas at a basic level in relation to the subject in hand.

Here Helen Morales offers a fascinating insight into classical mythology. She does not offer a potted history of all the myths themselves, although she does offer information about where to get such information. Instead, and much more interestingly to my mind, she walks us through what myths as a genre mean, and what they do for us to make them still relevant for discussion centuries after they were first conceived.

She takes broad topics for her chapter headings, such as mythology and its resurgence in the popular beliefs of New Agers, or myth as a vehicle for political machinations. Within that she discusses one or two key myths and shows how they have been used and developed over the centuries.

This is well written, easy to read and fun. It really whets the appetite for more research into the subject. It has some good illustrations, although those of mosaics would have been better on a bigger scale, unfortunately not to be, as the books are designed to be pocket sized. There are useful things like time lines, some good charts and a good bibliography. A great tool.
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on 27 July 2009
There are some excellent little books in this series. This isn't one of them.

The author's stated aim is "to understand classical myths not as fossilised entities, but as living agents." Her attempt to do this takes her into some strange by-ways: the story of Europa as a symbol of the European Union; the National Curriculum; sculptures on the Rockefeller Centre, New York; photographs of society ladies of the 1930s portrayed as mythical characters; the role of myth in psycho-analysis; ditto in New Age spirituality; a feminist perspective on myths of abduction and rape. She even gets in a reference to Xena, Warrior Princess.

Some of this may be interesting as a discursive commentary for people already well-versed in classical mythology. But readers wanting a clear, simple, well-organised introduction to the origins and development of classical myths and their contribution to Western art and literature would be best advised to look elsewhere.
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VINE VOICEon 8 June 2009
Emphatically not a narrative survey of Classical myths, this guide is firmly analytical. For Morales, 'Myth is a complex game of production and reception'. It is a game which invites reinvention and reinterpretation, selection and manipulation, and is one which is very much alive today.

Her approach is radical and invigorating. One modern 'myth' tackled early on is that of Greek 'cultural purity'. Martin Bernal's controversial study, 'Black Athena', is discussed and found wanting, as one of its its central arguments about the value of myth in helping to reconstruct cultural origins is rejected.

Morales references her points convincingly. Her argument about the malleability of myths, whose meanings depend on context, is illustated by examining the myth of Marsyas. To the Greeks, the myth can be interpreted as a warning that mortals 'know their place' and do not challenge the authority of the gods. To Romans of the Republic, however, Marsyas is a laudable figure, a freedom-fighter who resists the authority of the patrician class. In the myth's Roman guise, he is not killed by Apollo but rescued by Liber (god of liberation) and taken to Italy.

As with Beard and Henderson's 'Classics' in the same series, every effort is made to present the subject in a lively and topical way. Some characters make it onto the A-list of mythological heroes (Theseus), while others, despite their positive qualities, do not (Lycurgus). Trying to find out why A-listers 'make it' (John Lennon) while others remain resolutely B-list (John Major) makes for an absorbing discussion.

Morales is succinct and perceptive on the impact of Christianity, philosophy and psychology upon Classical myth (and vice versa), while her style is incisive, even provocative: the grand tradition of Western art, with its 'alibis' and its lascivious depiction of rape, has contributed to a view 'that ancient Greece and Rome were pornotopias.' By such means is a potentially dead(ly) subject brought vividly to life.
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…for which I am now the wiser. I had intended to read a concise summary of many of the classical myths of Greece and Rome, but the author, Helen Morales, indicated that this book would NOT be a “…potted retelling of myths.” In part, she says, the aim of the book “…is to understand classical myths not as fossilized entities, but as living agents.”

Morales provides a compelling example in her first chapter: How did the ‘rape of Europa’ end up being depicted on the Euro coin? It is a fascinating tale, commencing with the fact that in its earliest inceptions, “Europa” once referred to the area that is modern day Lebanon. Obviously that concept migrated a bit. Also, what is suitable for children has also migrated, since Apollo’s abduction of Europa was considered a suitable vehicle to convince school children in various European countries on the merits of the common currency. Then Morales discussed the admittedly controversial work of Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Volume One:The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 Vol 1). Bernal argues that classical Greece did not evolve in isolation, but rather had deep roots in the surrounding Asiatic and African culture. “Who we are, where we came from, and what we want to be: there is a lot at stake in a myth”

The author compares the depiction of myths on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with the giant statue of Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center in New York. Each depiction is used for different purposes. Indeed, “…the very malleability of myth ensures that the politics of any one version can be reversed in another.” Such diverse individuals as the Roman Emperor Commodus, Alexander the Great, Mark Anthony, Napoleon and Mussolini all fashioned themselves to be Hercules.

Chapter 5 is an instructive account of the impact of one Greek myth on Sigmund Freud, and thereby how he has influenced the understanding of the workings of the human mind by many of the elites of Western Civilization. But what would have happened if he had chosen Antigone, and not Oedipus to place on his analyst’s couch? Why was he silent about Jocasta’s suicide? Freud structured an “innate” world whereby the man solved riddles and a woman is desired. A different starting point, a different myth, and there would have been a different outcome. Why did painting scenes of rape become a “rite de passage” for the Great Masters, such as Titian, Rubens, Correggio, Poussin and Picasso? And how did it get to be – hum- that the real crime was the insult to the woman’s father or other male guardian?

Morales provides some bon mots: “One person’s inspiration is another’s emetic.” She provides a rather scathing analysis of the adaption of the classical mythology by the “New Age” religious movements, by concluding: “New Age spirituality purports to promote change – its mantra is ‘transformation’ – but, in reality, it endorses the status quo. It preaches changing oneself to accept the world as it is. New Agers are too busy with their affirmations and introspections to do anything like take direct action. Indeed, in some books the advice to unleash one’s inner goddess turns out to be little more than to bring back the old ‘domestic goddess.’”

Good books lead to others. In this case, Morales introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad) in which the “ever faithful” Penelope tell their side of the story in Homer’s The Odyssey: The Verse Translation by Alexander Pope. Once again, the “A very short introduction” series delivered. 5-stars.
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on 14 June 2012
When you hear introduction you would assume that it would start from the basics. However, this book is no introduction to classical mythology. It is clear from the off that the reader needs some existing knowledge of classical mythology as the author herself says she's not going to retell them. The book is more of an analysis of classical mythology. Don't get me wrong the book is interesting and the points made are thought provoking however it is not what you would expect it to be.
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on 22 August 2013
the book is more of a critique of classical myths and their relevance today than a retelling of mythical stories. ms. morales erudition and critical abilities give this very, very short introduction depth and encourages thought on the subject. if anything it is too short...
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on 21 May 2016
A nice introduction, but would have appreciated a wider variety of myths to be looked at. The author spent a lot of time on comparisons between mythology and present times, I would have appreciated more attention on the myths themselves.
Other than that, great book!
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on 8 September 2013
As usual A Very Short Introduction provides the perfect pallet teaser to new subject. Will not disappoint Mythology lovers either.
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