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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Context


Greek Geography and Culture

Ancient Greece in the context of the myths is best understood not as the single nation it is today but as a collection of closely allied city-states, each ruled by its own king. Athens, situated in the territory known as Attica, was the most powerful of these city-states and served as a kind of capital, but the other territories and city-states held varying levels of power as well. Thebes, north of Athens on the Greek mainland, figures in several myths, reflecting the city's power and prominence. Other prominent city-states include Argos and Sparta, both located on the Peloponnesian Peninsula south of Athens. Corinth is located on the tiny isthmus between the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the mainland. Crete (one of the islands south of the Greek mainland) and Ithaca (a small island to the west of the mainland) also play important roles in the myths of Theseus and Odysseus, respectively. Historically, as the myths indicate, the city-states of Greece generally cooperated with one another, but occasional conflicts did emerge, particularly with regard to boundaries between city-states.

The economies of these city-states were driven primarily by agriculture and trade, which led the ancient Greeks to establish relationships between city-states and with other Mediterranean cultures, such as those of Egypt in northern Africa and Phoenicia in the Middle East. Education in cultural traditions and lore was valuable, especially for the upper classes, and the Greeks formed symposia (feasts) held for the specific purpose of imparting knowledge and traditions. Gymnasia were another type of educational institution designed for physical training, not only for athletic events (such as the Olympics) but to train for war. The Olympics allowed a city-state to demonstrate its might and the athletic prowess of its citizens in friendly competition with other city-states.

The Trojan War

One of the defining events of Greek mythology is the Trojan War, a decade-long conflict uniting all the city-states of Greece against the city of Troy, thought to be located across the Aegean Sea in territory now part of modern Turkey. The mythical Trojan War predates all other historical conflicts, and some archaeological evidence exists to support an early conflict or multiple conflicts between Greece and a group of nine cities whose ruins have been excavated in northwestern Turkey. The site is strategically significant, located at the entrance to the Black Sea. The civilization that ruled this area would have had the opportunity to generate enormous income from trade by controlling this access point, which would have made these cities appealing targets for conquering forces.

Details of the Trojan War are likely fictional, but they may be poetic interpretations of historical events. For example, it is possible that Homer drew the idea for the Trojan Horse from the god Poseidon's association with both horses and earthquakes, as one of the cities excavated in Turkey appears to have been destroyed by an earthquake. Researchers have also speculated that the role of Helen (wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta) in starting the Trojan War is based on a similar conflict between the Hittites and the Egyptians over the death of a king's son. These theories are largely speculative, but they indicate connections between historical events and the poetic license that shaped the source material Hamilton uses to construct Mythology.

Mythology in Western Culture

For decades, Mythology has been a staple text in secondary and postsecondary academic settings worldwide because it provides a concise yet comprehensive overview of the classical myths and legends that underpin much of Western culture. Figures and events from mythology survive as the roots of many English words, such as titanic and herculean. The planets of earth's solar system derive their names from Roman gods, and NASA used mythological names for most of its 20th-century missions, including the Apollo missions that put humans on the moon. Allusions to Greek and Roman mythology also appear in familiar brand names, such as Midas car care centers, retail giant Amazon, and Pandora Internet radio.

More direct references to myths appear in literary sources as diverse as the works of William Shakespeare, the novels of James Joyce, J.K. Rowling's immensely popular Harry Potter series, and countless others. Even works without direct references to mythology—the Star Wars films, for example—follow patterns that date back to these classical roots, as mythologist and author Joseph Campbell outlines in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The stories of Hercules led to a cult-classic television series in the 1990s, an animated Disney adaptation in 1997, and a live-action Hercules, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in 2014. The adventures of Perseus were first popularized in Clash of the Titans (1981), and a 2010 remake proved highly popular as well. Rick Riordan's popular Percy Jackson series of books and films fully modernizes the story line of ancient heroes, with the title character as the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman.

While Hamilton presents a very brief overview of Norse mythology, especially compared to her comprehensive study of the classical period, these myths also have modern resonance. Most notably, Norse myths are referenced in the English names for days of the week (days of the week in Latin-based languages derive names from Roman gods). Norse mythology has provided the basis for novels by fantasy authors such as Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, but the myths' highest profile legacy likely rests in the presence of the gods Thor and Loki in Marvel Comics' "multiverse" and their appearance in The Avengers film franchise. The commercial success of these and other franchises illustrates the pervasive influence of ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse myths on popular culture.

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