Mythology by Edith Hamilton

Monday, October 10, 2011

Title: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
Author: Edith Hamilton
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 1942
Source: Personal copy
Read for: Mythology Challenge

When I was younger, I was absolutely thrilled by Greek and Roman mythology. I remember sitting in my sixth grade classroom, and whenever there was a break or I finished my schoolwork early, I would find a big illustrated volume of the myths and look up the "Big Twelve" on Olympus. Years later, during my senior year of high school, we had a mythology unit and I essentially had to memorize this book. I loved every minute. In fact, I remember being at Disneyland during spring break and waiting in long lines, and telling my younger brother and sister all the myths that I could remember. On my trip to Paris, I realized that I was slowly forgetting the myths and vowed that I would reread this book soon. Four years later, I finally got around to it.

I read this book much more critically than I did when I was seventeen, and it was not quite the same experience. I remember a long time ago in a class on C.S. Lewis, we discussed what a myth was. I wish I had sources, and I just attempted to google them, but to no avail, so I will have to summarize from memory to the best of my ability. If you are aware of any of this, jump in at the comments section. The essence of what I learned was that myths are familiar. It doesn't matter if you know the ending. They are still good when they are told again and again. There is something essential about a myth that touches the human experience. "The Value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity," says Lewis (the one quote I was able to find). So regardless of the form in which it is presented, the myths should still be powerful, moving, intimately familiar. 

And in some ways, they are. There are many myths that I absolutely love (namely: Orpheus, Vertumnus and Pomona, Cupid and Psyche, to just name a few). I still enjoy reading about the gods of Olympus. I still enjoy revisiting those myths. And for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the myths and learning brief summaries of a high volume of myths, this book is the best guidebook you could find. Hamilton takes her information from a wide variety of ancient writers, always refers to whom she is using, and specifies when the story has changed from author to author. And there are literally hundreds of mythical events and figures described. She even dedicates a few pages to Norse mythology (a subject I would really like to delve into further). 

However, as a reread from cover to cover, this book lacked the magic that it had the first time. While I didn't have all the myths memorized any more (far from it!), I was familiar enough with them that I didn't want to read them all. I think now that I have had a decent introduction to the myths, I crave a presentation in a unique style. Which may go against Lewis' hypothesis. Or maybe not - new presentations of myths reveal a classic story in new clothing, allowing us to enjoy it again and again. 

At any rate, this book is a fantastic introduction to the myths, and a great reference if you don't want to read all of the myths from cover to cover. 


  1. I love mythology, too, but it's true, myths tend to be re-told over and over and some lose their charm because of the familiarity. Great review!

  2. This was my first book of mythology that I read too, and I think it had that exact cover! Like you, I just ate it up. I recently finished a first-time read of Robert Graves' "Greek Myths: The Complete Edition" (Penguin Classics), and thoroughly enjoyed it. While I haven't gone back and looked at the Hamilton in aeons, Graves goes into a lot more detail with each myth, provides countless source citations, and has an extensive section of commentaries for each myth. It really is a scholar's dream; and as such, is perhaps not as 'readable' as Hamilton's work.

    I have to say that I really loved the quote from C.S. Lewis about the values of myths to us in our lives. That really strikes true to me.

    Great review, and you've inspired me to try and dig up my battered copy of Hamilton and shelve it with the rest of Greek classics. Cheers! Chris

  3. Pepca - Let me know if you ever hear of some great retellings. :)

    Chris - Oh, I will have to look into the Graves book! That might be a good Mythology 202 after the 101 course with Hamilton. Thanks for stopping by, and yay for mythology :)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...