by Edith Hamilton

Review by Edward Tanguay
July 9, 1996

Zeus and Hera are almost a comic couple, Zeus continually chasing after the young maidens, getting them pregnant, then taking off before Hera found out. That's where the humor ends because Hera always does find out and then renders some terrible torture not on Zeus but on the poor victim and her offspring. The surprising thing to me about these tales and what made them a bit tedious and even troubling to read was that justice seems so arbitrary. I'm used to the Christian parables which always have a "moral to the story" at the end which you can apply to your life. If you were to apply the morals that you learn from these Greek myths, you would turn out a bit wacko. Even the rugid Norse myths seem to have more morality behind them, but the Greek myths just seem to just be stories. They are more like dreams, breaking logic here and there, ending abruptly without closure or apparent reason.

The book I read by Edith Hamilton could have quoted a LOT more from the actual poets who originally wrote these myths. Her prose was bland-- the "he did this, she did that" type. It was kind of like reading the cliff notes to the Bible--just not much power in it anymore. She did, however, give a thorough survey of Greek, Roman, and Norse myths, enough so that I feel fairly certain that I will recognize the structure of these stories in other literature even if the names have been changed. She also gave comments on how each poet wrote about the myths, for instance that Roman Ovid did not believe in the myths as some of the older Greeks did so that his rendition is a bit more fairy- tale like while that of the Greeks is still filled with awe and wonder. These differences were unfortunately not represented in her own rendition, however.

Reading these myths got me thinking about the pros and cons of teaching this stuff to kids. If I were a little girl and read these stories, I would not feel good anymore about being a little girl. Women are treated so awfully and unfairly, given as prize to a brother here, or sold into slavery there. I remember at least two stories in which a baby was born and the father was disappointed that it was a girl. And we learn that

. . . from Pandora, the first woman, comes the race of women, who are an evil to men, with a nature to do evil . . .

Do we need to just trash these stories as being non-PC or how should we relate to them in our 20th century world?

There were a number of etymological finds these stories. For instance, the word "panic" comes from the saying that people use to here a trembling in the bush at night and think it was Pan. The story of Echo was sweet as well--I will think of her every time I hear an echo now. There's something about these stories that give life and personification to nature. The story of the sunflower being a maiden who fell in love with Helios the sun god and therefore always faces him is also sweet. And then you have the story of Arachne the weaver who

was eventually turned into a spider of course. Also, many of the stars and star constellations are explained with Greek mythology.

After about page 300, the onslaught of strangely pronounced names just got to be a bit much. It was like being at a family reunion of about 800 people, all who have done the most bizarre things.

I liked the stories that explained something, for instance, why we have spring and summer every year. Because Persephone, after being kidnapped by Hades and brought to the underworld, although obtaining release from Zeus, must spend four months of the year [winter] in the underworld because she had eaten a pomegranate seed. If your child asks why we have spring, this is a much more satisfying answer than "because God wants it that way" and much more interesting than a lecture including chlorophyll and the like.

The story about Bacchus came alive for me because I remember being at the play The Bacchae by Euripes at a drama festival in England where we as the audience sat in a group on the floor surrounded by a "forest" in which the play took place. I remember constantly looking all around me to watch what was going on. The characters portrayed by the actors were totally demented and brought to life the eccentricity and craziness of the god Dionysus--the screaming, the dancing, and the frenzied merriment powered by the spirit of wine.

I always thought that Shakespeare thought up Romeo and Juliette all by himself, but now that I have read the uncannily similar myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, I know otherwise! (And they told us all throughout school never to plagiarize, when the world's greats had been doing it for centuries!)

This quote is about Jupiter in the story "Baucis and Philemon," but I think it typifies the view that the Greeks had of their Gods, causual and adventurous:

Sometimes when Jupiter was tired of eating ambrosia and drinking nectar up in Olympus and even a little weary of listening to Apollo's lyre and watching the Graces dance, he would come down to the earth, disguise himself as a mortal and go looking or adventures.

This is a picture of a god, bored, just cruising around, a bit irresponsiblity perhaps, looking for something that he can get into.

I always thought Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) was such a hero but he couldn't have been more cold-hearted, heartless, and cruel to his wife Medea. That burning, empty hate that Medea feels toward Jason after giving up everything for him, then saving him only to be thrown aside for another and THEN accused by him . . . I don't think that emotion of rancor and bitterness could be any better identified than in this story. I can't wait to see Euripides' play Medea now. There's a theater here in Berlin that does a lot of Greek drama. The theater usually has only five rows of seats and many times the chorus is actually in the audience so the action is very close. The theater is also very HIGH so that they usually have things flying around making you dizzy and really bringing you into the drama--great for tragedies.

Anyway, Medea turns into revenge incarnate as she decides how she will do the dirty deed:

By death, oh, by death, shall the conflict of life be decided, Life's little day ended.


There seems to be a lack of good and evil in Greek mythology. It's a whole new paradigm which I don't think my mind has really clicked into yet. The stories all seem very arbitrary to me but I'm sure if you study them in more detail, you would begin to notice patterns emerge. What do the Greeks have in place of good and evil? What are all these myths trying to tell us?

Theseus was one of my favorite personas of the Greeks. He seemed to be the only one who seemed to have a sense of justice. He is a model leader of country, using his army for example to invade a city but after conquering, giving the city back and not allowing his men to plunder it. The way he brought in those persecuted to his city is also noble. I think he embodied one of those Greek ideas which took more than 2000 years for mankind bring into reality.

Reading about Hercules, I could only think of Sylvestor Stallone in Rocky, kind of a tough guy with one liners and no brains. Or Hamilton describes him better:

There is not other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone was dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match. That is the portrait of Hercules.

And the simplicity of his death also reveals Hercules' character:

"This is rest," he said. "This is the end." And as they lifted him to the pyre he lay down on it as one who at a banquet table lies down upon his couch.

I had always thought that Hercules was more of an all-around hero with both brains and muscles, but then, many of these Greek gods and characters surprised me when I got to know their personalities. For instance, I was surprised that there was a tomboy type character such as Atalanta. Nor did I know that the war hero Odysseus was originally a draft dodger. (!)

Themes keep reoccuring in these myths. First, if you are fated, you are fated. There is no getting out of it. I don't know how many times someone was destined to be killed by their son so they abandon him in the wilderness. Well, what do you know, the wolves or some god or some passerby ends up taking care of him and he comes back and kills you. There's no escaping fate in Greek mythology. Also, the revolting idea

of taking revenge by cooking someones children and feeding them to their parents (!) came up at least three times. That's an issue even Stephen King has left untouched! I think, and if so, thank god! And it always seemed to be bad luck to have a god fall in love with you. If he does, you were eventually a goner, after being abused in some way first, of course.

In contrast to these Greek myths, the Norse myths seemed fully existentialistic and fit more to the 20th centuryf frame of mind. Through Norse mythology is the theme that humans are doomed, even the gods are doomed and the best you can do is face this impending destruction with courage. This one is a classic example:

The hero in one of the Norse stories who laughs aloud while his foes cut his heart out of his living flesh shows himself superior to his conquerors. He says to them, in effect, You can do nothing to me because I do not care what you do. They kill him, but he dies undefeated.

Viktor Frankl is the modern day embodiment of this hero. Stephen Covey should use this hero in the next edition of his book _The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People_. Imagine, though, the mentality of a people who have as their myth that their own GODS are doomed. It's a deep sense of purely pagan life, I feel, a Nordic sense of life where things die much more often and where it is cold, damp and grey most of the year.

As I began reading about the Norse myths, I put on a CD of Wagner's highlights from the Ring. There is a fantastic cultural reward waiting for you if you become familiar with Nordic myths: Wagner's Ring Cycle. If you like these pagan myths of red-haired vikings searching for a home and enduring love and heroic feats and impending doom, it is an absolute necessity that you invest in a CD pack of the music from Wagner's Ring Cycle. I remember sitting exhausted in my seat after a 5-hour performance of Wagner's "The Valkyries" as the applause went on for 20 minutes. The music takes you away and takes on a life of its own and tells its own story. Nothing much really happens on the stage; you just sit there and get entranced by the music as it takes you back into these deep, dark worlds of the Norse gods and men. It's some of the most beautiful, powerful, megalomaniacal music you've ever heard. And if you know these myths well, Siegfried, Sigmund, Brumhilde, Gudrun, etc., I'm sure the music is that much more meaningful as that was Wagner's aim when he wrote the Ring Cycle, to revive these myths and give them life.

I was surprised to learn that we get the names of the days of the week in English from the Norse gods:

Tuesday from Tyr, god of war Wednesday from Woden, the chief of the gods Thursday from Donar, god of thunder (German: Donnerstag) Friday from Freya, the goddess of beauty and love


I recommend all myths, Greek, Roman, and Norse, to anyone who writes. They are the writer's lego blocks with hundreds of proven plots, scenes, and characters to be used partially or as patterns. I also recommend these myths to those who read a lot of literature. Today, there's hardly a story that hasn't been told and many stories have their roots in these simple relationships and clashes between men and gods and forces of nature and men. After getting this rough but extensive overview, I can't wait to encounter some of these in their original poetry and plays. And I look forward to trying to spot them in literature and drama.

Edward Tanguay

From: Lisa Bartle
Date: Thu, 11 Jul 1996
Subject: Mythology

First, for the record, I am hard pressed to remember anything Shakespeare wrote from his own imagination. That is, thought up himself. The job of the artist at that time, similar to ancient Greek playwrights, was to take something old and familiar and make it new and interesting, share new insight. Shakespeare had a source for everything I can think of.

Did you think Hamilton was dry reading? Possibly, but I appreciated her academic point of view. So many books of Greek Myths or otherwise throw in material which have, when researched, no sources in the orginal literature. It's all borrowed from secondary texts. Sometimes my favorite part was to read those introductory paragraphs telling the source in Greek or Roman literature.

As far a Hercules' brains versus brawn, that is one of the problems I have with a very popular cult-ish show, Hercules the Legendary Journeys. In it, Hercules is smart, reasonable, as well as strong. In the myths, he's a hairy guy, not all that bright, given to fits of rage and insanity, not to mention cross-dressing. Very different.

Finally, I agree with you on the Norse mythology. Though it was the Greeks which attracted me first in childhood, the Norse have such complexity. I hope you have read Beowulf. Your ideas of fate being more flexible in Norse mythology pan out there. The famous quotation goes something like, "Fate sometimes saves the doomed man if his courage is strong enough." A contradictory idea of fate being both inevitable and changeable through human action and bravery.

Lisa Bartle

From: Kathryn Obenshain
Subject: Mythology
Date: Wed, 10 Jul 1996

I agree with Edward's remarks about the Greek myths--"sexist" is perhaps the kindest word to describe their depiction of women, including the female gods. I was very familiar with the myths, having studied them in h.s. but they struck me with a different force, reading them anew. I read D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, which I had purchased for my grand-daughters, but now I don't know whether to give it to them or not! Like the Bible stories, 'though, the myths are alluded to so much in literature, particularly that of the 19th century, that the educated person really does need to know at least the most prominent and important characters & stories. Mary Renault's wonderful books about Theseus (THE KING MUST DIE & 2 others) are great in "explaining" some of the customs, beliefs, mores, etc., etc. & a credible basis on which the myths may have been built. We admire the "thought" of the ancient Greeks so much that it is easy to forget what a heirarchial society they had--with men at the top and women & slaves at the bottom!

For those of you interested in children's literature, or who have young children, do look up Rosemary Wells' books, MAX & RUBY'S FIRST GREEK MYTH ("Pandora") & the second one, the story of Midas, but I don't remember the exact title. They are both delightful & charming versions, especially for Max & RUby fans like me!

Best regards to all & happy reading!
Kathryn o/o/ o/

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