Year: 2017 // Format Reviewed: Hardcover (75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition) // Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal // Pages: 371 // ISBN: 978-0-316-43852-0
Greek mythology is a subject that has always fascinated me. I think it began back in primary/junior school when we first covered ancient Greece in history. I was immediately captivated by tales of Gods and heroes, awe-inspiring architecture (such as the Parthenon), and the real-world history of the country. I didn’t actively pursue my interest in Greek mythology afterwards, but I have invariably gravitated towards any sort of entertainment media that uses Greek mythology or Greek history as its subject matter. The movie 300, for example, or the God of War videogames.
A few years ago, I thought that it was about time to get hold of a book that chronicled the Greek myths in a comprehensive fashion so that I could properly read about them all. Of all the books I looked at, it was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology that constantly came out on top as THE book to have. Me being me, however, I didn’t get around to ordering a copy. Fortunately, I received the 75th Anniversary Illustrated Edition as a gift for Christmas. Aside from being a very thoughtful present, from somebody that clearly knew me and listened, it was a fantastic book that I bumped up to the top of my reading pile (I must apologise to my re-read of 11.22.63 which was immediately put on hold…) and wasted no time getting stuck into.
Mythology is a very well-organised book. Hamilton transcribes the original works of the likes of Ovid and Hesiod into easily-readable stories that are more suited to the modern reader – work which still holds up today considering that Mythology was first published back in 1942. More importantly, each story is prefaced with an explanation as to which of the ancient poets originally told said tale, the variations in their writing styles, and which of the accounts is used as the basis for Hamilton’s version. This varies between stories, as explained in the prefaces, because one poet might be more reliable in one instance, but another may have gone into greater detail in another. Different ancient poets also added their own personal touches of bias or vulgarity, which is either noted by Hamilton or filtered out in order to maintain concise storytelling without unnecessary, excessive detail or the sensationalism of depravity. Hesiod’s style, for example, is described as sometimes being naive and childish, while Ovid was a cynic.
The book begins with an introduction to classical mythology, how it tied into the culture of the time, and the various writers/poets who are quoted throughout the book. Profiles of all the Greek gods follow, including “family” trees, and an explanation of how the Greek Gods and their names “convert” to their Roman counterparts i.e. Zeus = Jupiter, Aphrodite = Venus, Athena = Minerva and so on (an especially useful reference when some of the stories are only told by the Roman poets and thus the Roman names for the Gods are used).
From here on, the stories are grouped together into categories (Hamilton states that she avoided trying to unify all of these tales, preferring to keep them separate – an approach that makes sense): Stories Of Love Qnd Adventure; The Great Heroes Before The Trojan War; The Heroes Of The Trojan War; The Great Families Of Mythology; The Less Important Myths. A detailed contents at the outset of the book makes it easy to find any of the stories within each category should you wish to come back and revisit a specific one at a later date.
I really enjoyed journeying through Mythology. The reading was easier than I expected, but not at the expense of detail. I also learnt quite a lot including the origins of names and fables, and the truth about certain mythological figures who have – in some cases – been heavily stylised by various entertainment mediums over the years, or had their personalities subtly modified. For example, I had no idea that Jason (of the Argonauts) turned out to be such a tool in the years following his successful quest for the Golden Fleece!
The book itself is also of good, solid quality, presented in the hardcover format with a stylish dust cover and excellent interior illustrations by Jim Tierney that really shout “Ancient Greece”. One of my (very few) criticisms are that there just aren’t enough of these illustrations! I think about half as many again would have been spot-on.
My other criticism is that the final section on Norse Mythology is so tiny. Granted, I don’t know a whole lot about the Norse Gods aside from their names and their domain, but I’m sure that there has to be more than what is detailed here. As it is, the Norse mythology section feels like a tacked-on afterthought and little more than a flirtation with the subject. It has no direct relevance to the Greek and Roman branches of mythology, and its presence in this book feels further out-of-place given that its lack of synergy means that all other forms of ancient mythology may as well have been included since they are equally as irrelevant (though such a book would be obscenely huge!).
My Norse grumblings aside, Mythology is an essential book for your shelf if Greek mythology is your thing. It’s a comprehensive voyage through the exploits of mythical Gods and heroes. Other books may offer more imagery and dramatisation but Edith Hamilton’s work is a no-nonsense compendium that stays close and true to the original source material.