Mythology Study Guide

Mythology is perhaps the most highly acclaimed modern collection of Greek and Roman (and even some Norse) myths. Written by Edith Hamilton in 1942, the collection draws on classical and other ancient sources to retell a wide variety of tales. In her introduction, Hamilton admits the difficulty of compiling stories that have been passed down by thousands of writers for thousands of years.

Greek mythology, like other mythologies, illustrates the origins of the world and the adventures of the gods, heroes, and mythological creatures who recur throughout the tales. Originally, the stories were passed down through oral tradition, though eventually they were written in various texts. The oldest literary sources for many myths are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, which probably originated in oral traditions themselves, as well as the Theogony and the [Works and Days] of Hesiod. Ancient Roman culture adapted the Greek myths to their own mythological traditions. Scholars have drawn more stories from the writings of Plutarch and Pausanias.

Archaeologists also have contributed to the body of contemporary knowledge about Greek myths, for many Greek artifacts portray scenes from the adventures. Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of the Mycenaean civilization as well as Sir Arthur Evans's discovery of the Minoan civilization unearthed sculptures, vases, and paintings that provided new details concerning the mythological characters and stories. Long after the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations crumbled, artists continued to find inspiration in Greek mythology. This influence waxed and waned, but most notably it resurfaced in the Italian Renaissance, when artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael paired Greek mythology with Christian themes.

Academic interest in Greek mythology arose in Western culture at the end of the eighteenth century. Previously, Christian leaders tended to characterize the pagan stories as lies or fables, but by 1795, German scholar Johann Matthias Gesner argued for their historical value. Thereafter, in Germany and beyond, various interpretations arose concerning the myths. Some believed that the gods and heroes mentioned in the stories were once actual human beings, and that the myths had become exaggerated stories of their lives. Others immediately argued that the characters were allegorical, being symbols that represented characteristics or whole value systems, but not actual people. Still others argued that the myths arose from cultures in Asia and Asia minor, for some of the archaeological evidence suggested this trend. Though they could not agree on the details, early academics all believed the myths were valuable relics of an important period of history.

It was not until Edith Hamilton's Mythology that the stories became compiled in an understandable fashion for non-academics. Hamilton's anthology succeeds not only by telling these stories clearly to the modern reader but also by staying true, it seems, to the original cultures' narratives and voices. For decades, colleges and secondary schools around the world have assigned Hamilton's Mythology as a secure foundation for understanding the most important Greek myths. Thus, the book has captured the imaginations of academics and students alike.