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Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edith Hamilton's Mythology, published in 1942, includes Greek, Roman, and Norse myths and has been an introductory text to classical myth in classrooms ever since.

Hamilton's collection has been beloved by readers and has sold millions of copies. Although the author used a number of classical sources for her myths, including Homer, Sophocles, and Ovid, her simple and entertaining approach to the myths has made them accessible for all readers.

1. Hamilton didn't begin writing until she had retired from 26 years as an educator.

Hamilton became the headmistress of Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Baltimore, Maryland, and worked there for 26 years. In 1922 she retired and focused on her love for classical civilization. She then began writing, first publishing articles. Her first book, The Greek Way, was published in 1930.

2. Robert F. Kennedy found comfort in Hamilton's writing after his brother's assassination.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his widow, Jackie, sent a copy of Hamilton's first book, The Greek Way, to the president's brother Robert. He read it during a time of mourning and claimed it gave him great comfort. Historian David J. Schmidt pointed out, "Hamilton opened his eyes to fate and the Greek view of tragedy and tragic events." In fact, Robert F. Kennedy so admired Hamilton's writing that he quoted lines from her work in his eulogy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

3. Hamilton has been criticized for ignoring negative aspects of Greek civilization.

Some classics scholars have found Hamilton's interpretations of Greek history and myth unbalanced. They note that she nearly ignores the facts that the ancient Greeks were slaveholders and that they subjugated women. Critic Helen Bacon wrote, "Her commitment was not the scholar's commitment to the facts of the past that require demonstration, but to the unverifiable 'truths of the spirit,' which she thought she found in ancient writers." However, Hamilton's enthusiasm for her subject was "inspirational" for many readers.

4. Hamilton was inspired by her mother to bring the ancient world alive to modern readers.

Hamilton's mother, Gertrude Pond Hamilton, encouraged each of her four daughters to excel, admonishing them, "There are two kinds of people, the ones who say, 'Somebody ought to do something about it, but why should it be I?' and those who say," Somebody must do something about it, then why not I?'" Inspired by these words, Edith Hamilton was determined to make the ancient world accessible to modern readers. In doing so—successfully—she became "an ambassador of an ancient civilization," according to author John Mason Brown. Edith Hamilton's sister Alice also excelled, becoming a physician, toxicologist, and reformer.

5. The king of Greece made Hamilton an honorary Athenian citizen.

Hamilton was born in Germany, but her parents were American and she was an American citizen. In 1957 at age 90, she visited Greece, where King Paul of Greece awarded her honorary Athenian citizenship in recognition of her devotion to Athenian ideals. The ceremony took place in the Acropolis of Athens, an ancient citadel situated above the city, and was one of the greatest joys of Hamilton's life.

6. Hamilton considered myths to be proof of civilization rising above brutality.

Hamilton never tried to define exactly what a myth was, but she had very definite opinions about their role in civilization's history. She wrote, "The Greeks too had their roots in the primeval slime ... But what the myths show is how high they had risen above the ancient filth and fierceness." For her, myths were proof of civilization's advance.

7. Hamilton often strayed from the ancient versions of her myths.

Though Hamilton quotes frequently from ancient versions of her myths, she presents the gods somewhat differently than many of the old sources do. She calls the gods "human gods," focusing often on their human traits and their interactions with humans. She claimed that Zeus had "endless love affairs," which again served to humanize him.

8. Hamilton wrote Mythology for the masses, not for scholars.

Hamilton's ability to bring the Greek myths to the public was fueled in part by her training in ancient languages and history. But she never claimed to be a scholar, and she didn't write for scholars. She loved the ancient Greeks and their stories, and she humbly noted, "There are few efforts more conducive to humility than that of the translator trying to communicate an incommunicable beauty." She felt her responsibility was to show that beauty to as many readers as possible.

9. Hamilton had trouble keeping track of pages as she wrote.

Apparently, Hamilton was notorious for her page-numbering process—or lack of process. She would become so involved in her writing that she would write whatever page number was in her mind at the top of the page she had just finished. A friend once reported, "I just went up to see Edith, and the whole room was covered with page 11."

10. Hamilton was educated at home and learned Greek and Latin from her father.

Hamilton and her three sisters were educated at home until they were 17. Their parents provided novels and history, biography, and poetry books for them. They read voraciously. Their father taught them Latin and Greek, and they learned German and French. Later, Hamilton took Greek and Latin classes and studied the classics in college.

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