by Edith Hamilton
Published by Penguin Group, 1969
Of old the Hellenic race was marked off from the barbarian as more keen-witted and more free from nonsense. – Herodotus I: 60
Perhaps it is for their wisdom, perhaps for their story-tellers, perhaps for their writers, perhaps for their world-wide influence, or maybe just because they’re the youngest of the ancients, but Greek mythology is one of the most widely studied nationalities of mythology today. Norse and other European follow close behind, and yet for some reason the constant bickering of Zeus and Hera, the folly of Midas, and the big, soft, brutish Hercules are more common knowledge in the modern western world. Countless books in western culture reference the Odyssey and the Iliad, amongst others.
With this as the background of her day, Edith Hamilton decided to write this book. It’s small, concise, and relatively easy to read, and yet it covers hundreds of the best-known Greek myths in a well-organized, easy to locate fashion. It’s a reference book of some of the most famous stories ever told. Her style is to present the myths in short summaries, and for most of these she will give her source documents. Based on the details she presents, the depths of her research become obvious. This work deserves the fame it has received.
For each major myth, she begins by naming the different authors that wrote about that story, a brief description of each of their writing styles, which she chose to use, and why she would use primarily that source. She would then proceed to narrate the myth in a short summary, taking whatever time was needed to discuss the characters, cultures, or oddities in the source text. Depending on the importance and fame of each legend, however, Hamilton might often go into further depth for particular stories; this list included such famous myths as Jason and the Argonauts, the destruction of Troy, and the adventures of Odysseus. Each of these would receive a full chapter that attempted to point out all the major sub-stories while still keeping Mythology as a whole short and simple. All this considered, her summaries are fantastic: she displays huge portraits with decent detail in a format that may only take a couple pages each.
In general, Edith categorizes and groups the myths based on the reputation of the story, the amount of detail in the original books, and the general importance of the myth relative to the others. She starts by introducing the gods, a fundamental knowledge to understanding any bit of Greek mythology. Next she then covers the Greek idea of creation and the history of the universe, the major stores before and after the Trojan War, and then the dozens of minor myths that linger around unimportantly. When multiple characters share a name, or when stories overlap, she takes the extra time to clarify the situation. All of this means that the reader can skip to any particular story out of context and still understand what it’s about. As a reference book, this is exactly what Mythology needs, and it successfully does just that.
As far as writing style goes, Hamilton goes for a factual approach to the stories. For the sake of consolidation, she uses simple, powerful words rather than elaborate descriptions. Assuming the reader is looking for the actual substance of the myth rather than for a good story, she sticks to the important details without getting distracted by beautiful elaborations or unnecessarily long tangents. Each story stays within the bounds of its immediate context when it could easily wander. The downside of all this is a lack of general beauty through the book. Many people consider the book boring compared to more literary versions of the mythology. Each story is set off and labeled, making it simple to jump between stories rather than reading from start to finish. And finally, the stories are just told as-is, without much effort to make them enthralling or particularly interesting.
It doesn’t really matter, though, if the book is boring, shallow, or non-descriptive. It wasn’t meant to be. Edith Hamilton wrote Mythology as a reference book, a compilation of numerous myths in compact form in a style that makes skimming and skipping easy and effective. A reader isn’t necessarily supposed to read cover-to-cover, but is expected to read mainly just the portion they’re particularly interested in. For this purpose, the book is practically ideal. It is well researched and documented, if you want to delve deeper into the stories; it is well organized to make each story easy to find; finally, it is concise to convey the most details in the least space. For the task she set out to accomplish, Edith Hamilton succeeded.