Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton

Back when I was in high school I loved it when we studied Greek Mythology. It’s been a while since I took the time to read any sort of mythology…that is, until recently.

I understand that this book is often required reading for many high school students as an introduction to mythology. I’m sad to say that it was never required reading for me; however, I recently had the good fortune to pick this up second hand and discovered Edith Hamilton’s Mythology for the first time.

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Edith Hamilton’s interest in the classics started at a young age. She would later study both Greek and Latin and go on to earn her Masters degree before taking a job at Bryn Mawr. Although primarily an administrator, I understand that she was also a wonderful teacher. When she retired she started writing and this is just one of the books she wrote during her retirement. This book is a collection of various stories from Greek Mythology with a very brief section at the end on Norse Mythology. It has the major epics such as the adventures of Odysseus, the fall of Troy and The Quest of the Golden Fleece as well as minor myths like Midas, even brief myths, most of which I had never heard of, in which someone often turns into something else like an insect! It really is a wonderful introduction to mythology. She provides a list of the gods with a brief bio on them; she points out early heroes; heroes of the Trojan War; love stories and minor myths.

I enjoyed reading this book. I felt like she gave me a good foundation of who the gods were, their powers and their interactions with men and women. Sadly, when a god decided to involve himself or herself into the affairs of mortals, it usually led to pain and difficulty for the mortals.

Ms. Hamilton begins each chapter by telling the reader which poet or poets created the myth. She will often use a few different sources as she retells the story. For example, part of a story may come from Apollonius, another part from Ovid and perhaps a third from Hesiod. She tells the reader which parts of the story she took from which poet. I feel like the end result was a more interesting and complete story than the original…unless of course one has time to read all of the poets mentioned!

I found it interesting the way the stories evolved. For instance, Zeus was originally a rain-god but later became a god with human form and “…protector of the weak.” Later, the Furies become the Benignant Ones. This was also done by creating an alternate ending, such as Agamemnon’s death. She tells us early on that these changes arose “…as men grow continually more conscious of what life demanded of them and what human beings needed in the god they worshipped.” As society’s views changed so did some of the stories.

The stories of Theseus and Hercules show how societies shaped their heroes. Theseus was the Athenian hero and he reflected their ideals. Athens valued intelligence and their hero was brave, compassionate and intelligent. Hercules, however, was different. He is known for his strength, but I was surprised to learn that he was all braun and no brain. Apparently most of Greece admired strength and so Hercules became a popular hero.

There were many stories that I enjoyed reading; some I found troubling and others I will not see the same way again. It was interesting to read the two creation accounts. What was interesting was just how different they were and that there were no women! Apparently Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, as “…a great evil for men…” later on. Well, that speaks volumes about how they viewed half of the human race! Besides this, I thought the story about Dionysus was both interesting and troubling. I was surprised to learn that he was a dying and rising god, but there were also some pretty terrible actions associated with the god of wine. In other stories I learned that burial rites were extremely important to the Greeks.

However, I do have a criticism for this book: the section on Norse Mythology was way too short! I loved everything I read in this section though! Ms. Hamilton chose the poems that best captured the beliefs of the Norse and this is a very different outlook on life. What I did not realize was how depressing Norse Mythology is. I did not realize that the gods lived knowing defeat was inevitable. It does not end well, and there is not much they can do about it, but they will go down fighting against evil and in the process reveal who they are by how they die. Theirs was a harsh reality in which good doesn’t necessarily conquer evil and this sentiment extends to the world of their gods as well.

Why did she include such a short section on Norse Mythology? She concludes her book by saying, “Norse Mythology and Greek Mythology together give a clear picture of what the people were like from whom comes a major part of our spiritual and intellectual inheritance.”

If your interested in reading different stories mostly from Greek Mythology then this book is a good place to start. As for me, I now want to read more about Norse Mythology.

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