Review by C.J. Bunce
At some point early in life every kid gets the bug for Greek mythology. Suddenly you want to know how Hercules related to Zeus and you draw Cyclops on everything. But not everyone digs deep into the subject. Even if you get a history degree in college you only touch on the Greek myths by way of the ancient historians who documented these age old stories from the oral tradition. Yet for eight decades many have turned to one source. In 1942 after writing three other works on the ancient world, educator and classicist Edith Hamilton bundled together her research into the Greek myths to create her book, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. It’s now available from publisher Black Dog and Leventhal (order it here at Amazon) as the perfect gift, one every household should own, a copper-foiled hardbound edition first published in 2017 and worthy of commemorating 75 years of educating the world about the intellectual adventure of ancient man. With a stylized art deco look and illustrations by Jim Tierney, this is the definitive edition of this landmark work. But what you should know if you haven’t read it yet is how completely readable, easy to understand, and enjoyable it is. And so much of our daily lives are derived from the myths captured in this book. It’s time to revisit this historic work.
Per Hamilton, “Roman and Greek mythology is quite generally supposed to show us the way the human race thought and felt untold ages ago.” Hamilton’s work is a secondary source–she read and interpreted the works of ancient historians, writers, playwrights, and poets, and distills these stories into their core tale, all from the likes of Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aristophanes and Apollonius of Rhodes, Apuleus, Lucian and Ovid, Apollodorus, Plutarch and Virgil. Best of all Hamilton cites her sources to best home in on the core of each myth, restated from its best version, often quoting key passages verbatim.
Readers may see Perseus’s tale retold elsewhere centuries later as a Grimm fairy tale. Theseus’s governing style still defines how humans envision the perfect leadership qualities. Hamilton includes corresponding names and differences from later Roman mythology. Names of the planets and constellations, the ocean itself and the seas, names from our calendar, and plants and flowers sprout from the names for Greek and Roman mythological figures, and words we use every day derive their meaning from their Greek roots, whether its Apollo and Orpheus still closely affiliated with music, or timeless stories used to illustrate current events like Pandora’s box. Countless sailing ships have been named for these figures.
Hamilton’s Mythology is a great way to enlighten and educate. If you’ve ever browsed any major museum’s paintings, so many artists honed their craft interpreting these tales in oils. Look to the Renaissance, the neo-classical and pre-Raphaelites in particular for major memorable images. Other great masters composed symphonies, particularly in the Romantic period, and WIlliam Shakespeare referenced characters from mythology extensively.
Hamilton’s text is easy for anyone to understand, and her chapters and stories are brief and easy to digest. Yes, it is 370 pages long–a hefty book–and yet you could read it from cover to cover in a few days. With a hundred characters a reader could absorb the most famous of the Greek stories. Literary writers, whether in fiction or non-fiction, use these characters’ stories to illustrate points, whether in the latest mystery or the latest high court decision.
Each page is edged with Greek symbols, and several pages incorporate pictorial works to supplement the story. This edition includes “family trees” showing the relationship of the gods, titans, and monsters, as well as a thorough index. Ten key scenes created by Jim Tierney are peppered through the book. The foiled jacket covers a shiny hardcover binding and end-papers also incorporate Greek design work. In one chapter Hamilton condenses Homer’s Trojan War accounts, in another she documents the great families–houses–of the Greek myths (think Dune or Game of Thrones), in another she incorporates lesser known myths (which includes Sisyphus and Midas!), and ends with an overview of the Norse myths, a brief summary from Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, but primarily from the two Eddas.
The myths also live on in pop culture, in Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Clash of the Titans, in names of the NASA missions to the Moon, from the comics Wonder Woman’s Amazons are sourced in Greek myths and Thor obviously from the Norse, popular TV shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys further romanticized these stories, and more oblique references can be found all over, like names for movies and ships in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise.
Even for those who read Mythology years ago, it’s worthy of a revisit, and if your house is without a copy for reference, then this is for you. First published in 2017, this 75th anniversary edition of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes is now available at the 80th anniversary of Hamilton’s book. Order it now in time for the holidays from publisher Black Dog and Leventhal here at Amazon. Note: It was released with a companion book, also illustrated by Tierney, Classical Mythology A to Z: An Encyclopedia of Gods & Goddesses, Heroes & Heroines, Nymphs, Spirits, Monsters, and Places, by Annette Giesecke, also available at Amazon, here (review coming soon).