Literature Study GuidesMythologyIntroduction To Classical Mythology Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Introduction to Classical Mythology | Summary

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Summary

The Mythology of the Greeks

Edith Hamilton outlines how the myths of ancient Greece came to be, describing these myths as one of the first literary traditions to emerge after humans climbed out of the "primeval slime." These stories are a mark of a civilized culture. Hamilton points out, "we do not know when these stories were first told in their present shape; but whenever it was, primitive life had been left behind. The myths as we have them are the creation of great poets." She credits Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as the first to commit the myths to print at least a thousand years before the Christian era.

Although other cultures, such as the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, had gods and myths of their own, their gods often took on animal shapes and lived removed from humanity. By contrast, the Greek gods possessed human qualities, including taking on human form and succumbing to human fallibility. Their intrigues and exploits reveal an imaginative approach to the creation of myths that would have been unique at the time. The gods interact with humans, and live among them at times. They are objects of fear because they can be "very powerful and dangerous when angry," but they are also objects of amusement. For example, Zeus's many failed attempts to hide his many affairs from his wife, Hera, reveal very human weaknesses.

Hamilton cautions that these myths are not to be treated as religious text, as they served a variety of purposes beyond a basis for worship. They can be read as early attempts at scientific inquiry—attempts to explain natural phenomena and understand fundamental elements of human nature. Some mythical stories reinforce moral principles and social norms. Others are presented as "pure entertainment, the sort of thing people would tell each other on a long winter's evening."

The Greek and Roman Writers of Mythology

In compiling the myths, Hamilton draws from a number of sources in ancient Greece and Rome. The most notable of these sources is Homer, the blind Greek poet who authored the oldest Greek myths, the Iliad, which tells of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, which describes the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus as he returns from the Trojan War. Homer's work dates to at least 1,000 BCE. Hamilton's other major source is Ovid, the Latin poet whose work appears during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus and becomes "a compendium of mythology." She also cites other early Greek poets, including Hesiod, a farmer turned poet around 800 or 900 BCE, and Pindar, a lyric poet famous for odes to participants in national festivals around 600 BCE. She also draws from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, best known for their tragic poetry and dramatic writings around 400 or 500 BCE. Contemporary to these writers is Aristophanes, another Greek playwright best known for his comedies. The author cites Alexandrian poets Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, whose work dates around 250 BCE.

From the 2nd century CE come the Roman Apuleius and the Greek Lucian. Apollodorus is a Greek source whose work is as comprehensive as Ovid's, but less dynamic and much more difficult to date, with estimates ranging from 100 BCE to 800 CE. Other sources include the Greek Pausanias and the Romans Virgil, Catullus, and Horace. In general, Hamilton expresses a preference for the Greek writers as definitive sources, whose writings were informed by their proximity to the stories and their belief in what they wrote.

Analysis

It is important to note the stories as presented in Mythology are one interpretation of the texts available from the classical period—defined as the cultural apices of ancient Greece and, by extension, Rome. Even Edith Hamilton's source texts present different versions of the same story. Hamilton's emphasis on this point, as well as her discussion of how the myths existed (possibly for centuries before they were written down) highlights how there is a measure of uncertainty in the compilation of any anthology of myths that attempts to be comprehensive and definitive. Mythology represents an attempt to synthesize those versions into a single source. The presentation of sources Hamilton uses illustrates three important points. First, the primary sources provided in this introduction highlight the legitimacy of Hamilton's text. Second, the listing of these sources provides a basis for serious scholars of classical mythology to continue their own studies. Third, the number and variety of these sources reveals how pervasive the myths were for the culture, education, and entertainment of classical society.

Hamilton's connection between the act of creating mythologies and the building of civilization emphasizes the importance of mythology as a foundation for creative expression that marks a civilization. However, she writes, "the Greeks made their gods in their own image. That had not entered the mind of man before. Until then, gods had had no semblance of reality," and compares Greek mythology with the less human gods of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians that predate the Greek stories. She concludes this comparison by saying, "one need only place beside them in imagination any Greek statue of a god, so normal and natural with all its beauty, to perceive what a new idea had come into the world. With its coming, the universe became rational." The implication of this comparison is that the Greek myths are qualitatively superior to the myths that precede them in history. The exceedingly brief presentation of the Norse myths (three short chapters appearing at the end of the anthology) indicates that Hamilton places emphasis on the Greek and Roman myths as being more directly influential on classical European developments in the arts. This perspective breaks down with more recent multicultural and interdisciplinary studies that include non-European influences and traditions. Certainly, Greek myths serve a function beyond facilitating worship, reinforcing cultural and social norms and ideals, and providing entertainment, but the humanity of the Greek gods comes with a measure of the irrationality that naturally accompanies human behavior. Hamilton argues the relative absence of "magic," or all-powerful priests in the Greek myths, and the relationship between humans and the dead create a rational approach to myth missing from cultures before and after the classical period. Yet, she undermines this argument by acknowledging how the acts of the Greek gods are "disconcertingly incalculable."

Hamilton's emphasis on the classical gods' physical beauty in human form seems the primary basis for the argument that these gods were not "terrifying." She says these gods transform "a world full of fear into a world full of beauty." Yet, a reading of the chapters that follow reveal a pantheon of gods and goddesses all too ready to punish even small offenses with harsh consequences. She claims the Greeks do not fear the dead, yet the underworld is consistently presented as a fearsome place where only the greatest and bravest heroes dare to tread. While the influence of classical mythology in Western culture is undeniable, and this influence is based on the humanity of the gods and their close relationship to humans, the gods' relative humanity also serves to reveal the kinds of terror human nature is capable of generating.

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