Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.16


Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner, Classical Mythology: Images and Insights. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1995. Pp. xxi + 1065. $37.95. ISBN 1-55934-146-7.


Reviewed by Lisa Maurizio and Brendon Reay, Stanford University (maurizio@ or brendon@leland.stanford.edu).

David Frauenfelder, reviewing Barry Powell's Classical Myth in a recent issue of BMCR (95.5.3), noted that "it is something of a surprise that so few new comprehensive textbooks have emerged to challenge the hegemony of Morford and Lenardon's Classical Mythology" (hereafter M.& L.). The field of contenders is now becoming crowded, with Powell, Carl Ruck and Danny Staples's The World of Classical Myth: Gods and Goddesses, Heroines and Heroes (Durham, 1994), Hypermyth (Salt Lake City: Hermes, 1993), Richard P. Martin's Classical Myth and its Context (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) with a comparative emphasis, and the present ambitious volume, Classical Mythology: Images and Insights by Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner (H.& P.). M.& L., now in its fifth edition and linked via Hypercard to Harvard's Perseus Project, has become the benchmark for textbooks on classical mythology in the U.S. and is thus the text with which we compare H.& P. in this review.

H.& P. is a long book, roughly 400 pages longer than M.& L., but not larger, squeezed by virtue of its 10-pt type between covers that reproduce the M.& L. "footprint". Portable, but a bit hard on the eyes. H.& P. consists of 23 chapters organized into five parts. A general discussion of myth and its interpretation ("The Universality of Myth"), is followed by a presentation that replicates the historical chronology of the ancient sources: "The Preclassical World of Gods and Heroes", "The World of Classical Tragedy", "The World of Roman Myth", and "The Western World's Transformations of Myth". A glossary, a select bibliography keyed to individual chapters, and an index round out the volume. Each chapter is organized clearly and identically: a single paragraph summary of the chapter's "key themes" precedes the main discussion and presentation of the ancient source(s), which are followed at the end by suggested "questions for discussion and review", "works cited" (where there are any), and "recommended reading". While the fifth edition of M.& L. contains two sections of attractive color plates and numerous black and white photos, H.& P. have more photos (black and white only), many of which are of archaeological sites and finds. Finally, H.& P. is complemented by an Instructor's Manual and Test Bank by Nina Rosenstand, which features an overview of main points of each chapter, and supplies true/false, multiple-choice, and essay questions.

In part one, "The Universality of Myth", H.& P. define myth, outline early Greek history, describe ancient sources for Greek myths, and overview seminal interpretations. In many ways, their treatment of these topics varies little from M.& L.'s, which is not to say that they are identical either. M.& L. fit all this information into an introduction; H.& P. take two chapters. While M.& L. give one brief paragraph on the differences between myth, saga, legend, and folktale, H.& P. discuss these differences, as well as the orality of Greek myths (though M.& L. eventually get to this point, H.& P. are more thorough), the similarity of myths to dreams, and some of distinctive qualities of Greek myth (humanism, individualism and competitiveness). Similiar in both books is their run-down of sources -- Homer, the hymns, tragedy, Apollodorus -- with one to five paragraphs on each. While M.& L. list more interpretative approaches than H.& P., H.& P. are more thorough when explaining the approaches they have selected. H.& P. also organize their material more thoughtfully, dividing "externalist" theories -- those that view myth as explanation -- from psychological theories. What one wishes for in both texts, however, is a more general discussion of the relationship of myth and society, especially Greek religion, beyond a perfunctory account of myth and ritual.

H.& P.'s second part, "The Preclassical World of Gods and Heroes" covers Hesiod, Homer and the Homeric Hymns, and is followed by "The World of Classical Tragedy", which is introduced by a whole chapter on the nature of tragedy. Whether this division between the preclassical and classical world is more successful than M.& L.'s thematic division between myth/divinities and sagas/heroes will perhaps depend on how each instructor conceives their course. The benefit of this approach is clear enough: students will gain a good sense of Greek literary history and the nature of the sources of Greek myth. Some of the difficulty of this arrangement is pointed up by the existence of two chapters on Dionysus: one in the preclassical part and one in the classical. In addition, it is not evident why the gods/goddesses should be restricted to the preclassical part. This choice has the unfortunate consequence of suggesting that worship of such divinities is more pronounced in the earlier period.

In their first part on preclassical world, H.& P. wisely provide a complete translation of the Theogony (Apostolos N. Athanassakis's), which they introduce by highlighting some of its major themes. In M.& L., the Theogony is not quoted in its entirety, and is confusingly interwoven in their discussion of this text. As in the first part, H.& P. highlight fewer themes than M.& L. and discuss them more thoroughly. Of particular note is their treatment of Aphrodite's birth, Athena's birth (which is followed by a host of clear, well marked interpretations), and Pandora's creation. Indeed, one of the distinguishing marks of H.& P.'s treatment of myth in general is their thoughtful discussion of how gender plays a significant role in Greek myth. Without fanfare and polemics they often discuss myth in terms of the gendered dynamics of its characters and do more for advancing the importance of such considerations than M.& L. manage in their brief and dismissive paragraph on feminism in their opening survey of approaches. (However, H.& P.'s chapter on the great goddess, which relies uncritically on the work of Gimbrutas, may be the glaring exception to this characterization of their work -- a chapter which nonetheless might provide fodder for interesting class discussion.) While M.& L. provide a substantive ten to forty pages on about eight different divinities, H.& P. again are more selective and more thorough. They discuss only the great goddess (a dubious category), Apollo, Dionysus, and Hades in any significant detail. Despite being roughly one thousand pages, H.& P. devote only(!) one third to the gods/goddesses. We found the limited attention to divinities a significant loss, especially because their chapter on Apollo, for example, is quite successful. It contains a significant amount of material on Delphi and artfully connects Greek myth with Greek institutions and ways of thinking, even if one might want to argue with some of their interpretations (for example, they link Apollo's exile for slaying Python with his "moral responsibility" and follow, more or less, the Nietzschean dichotomy between reason and irrationality to explain the presence of both Dionysus and Apollo at Delphi). Indeed, M.& L. offer less interpretative analysis here and elsewhere. In the Apollo chapter at least, this is because M.& L. spend less time on Delphi than H.& P. do and fill their chapter with excerpts from Ovid on Apollo's love affairs, which are briefly mentioned in H.& P. Both include the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo.

Part two concludes with Greek heroes and the Homeric epics. Chapter 10, "The Hero: Man Divided against Himself," presents a lucid blend of story summary, the characteristics that mark the heroes of Greek myth, and an account of heroism (excluding Perseus) that turns on the contradictory impulses Greek heroes exhibit: "the fulfillment of their godlike capacity to excel" and "the expression of their instinctive savagery or violence." We missed some mention, however brief, of the ritual components of heroes and hero worship in Greek culture (also absent in M.& L.). In chapter 11, a summary of the judgement of Paris and the subsequent events that precipitate the Trojan war segues to more general remarks: the timelessness of Greek myth, and the uneasy intersection of the human and divine. Background material about Homeric epic and brief theme summaries (e.g. "the hero's nature", "the gods", "the heroic code", "the role of women") introduce the Iliad. H.& P.'s presentation of the Iliad underscores one of this text's great advantages over M.& L.: the inclusion under one cover of larger quantities of ancient sources in translation. Here, H.& P. present more than 2800 lines of Fitzgerald's translation of the Iliad, mostly excerpts of 70 or more lines (only book 1 is presented in its entirety) interspersed with summaries. Chapter 12 presents some 2500 lines of Mandelbaum's translation of the Odyssey after fine introductory remarks about Odysseus' particular brand of heroism, Athena's role in the poem, and "Odysseus and Images of the Feminine."

H.& P. include eight tragedies (all in their entirety except The Libation Bearers) in "The World of Classical Tragedy", the third part of their book. Each tragedy is thoughtfully introduced and followed by H.& P.'s characteristic questions for discussion and review. Included are Prometheus Bound, Oresteia, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Medea, and Bacchants. The incorporation of so many tragedies under one cover is a welcome feature. However, the treatments of these plays tend to focus on questions internal to the text at hand. How these plays pertain to the question of myth and heroism as it was defined earlier by H.& P. seems lost. In H.& P.'s account of Medea, for example, she emerges as a strictly Euripidean creation who bears no relationship to the heroes discussed earlier. Her story is seen as a critique of "tragic" heroism, a specifically literary category. No mention is made of heroism understood as a cultural phenomenon, a topic more pertinent to a discussion of Medea within the context of Greek myth. This intensely "literary" emphasis and absence of ritual and cultic context is a weakness of H.& P.'s section on tragedy overall. "The World of Classical Tragedy" concludes with a chapter on Plato, which contains summaries of Aristophanes's speech from the Symposium and the myth of Atlantis from the Republic, and Cornford's translations of the myth of Er and the allegory of the cave from the Republic.

Part four, "The World of Roman Myth", focuses on the Roman reception and transformation of Greek myth, and includes excerpts from the Aeneid and Metamorphoses. H.& P. begin with a thoughtful overview of Roman mythology.

While M.& L.'s introduction to Roman mythology focuses on the who, what and where of Italic gods, H.& P. provide a fine discussion of how and why the Romans adapted Greek myths. According to H.& P., the Romans transformed Greek myth by redefining deities and emphasizing different ones; by historicizing myth; by politicizing myth; by reinterpreting myth in light of Roman ideals. Summaries (why not Livy himself?) of the stories of Romulus and Remus, and the rape of the Sabine women, illustrate the results of these transformations. In H.& P.'s discussion, then, Roman myths emerge not as pale imitations of Greek myths, but instead as an important, dynamic aspect of Roman self-invention. The downside to H.& P.'s valuable discussion is that it loses sight of the Roman blending of indigenous and Greek material that M.& L.'s account captures.

H.& P.'s inquiry into the hows and whys of Roman mythology concludes with a brief summary of Roman heroism, a deft transition to the following chapter's presentation of the Aeneid. After a brief introduction to Vergil's life and works, H.& P. compactly sketch the central themes and characters of the poem, and juxtapose a reading of the poem that insists on "Rome triumphant" with an "ironic" viewpoint. Some 2700 lines of Mandelbaum's translation (from books 1, 2, 4, 6, and 12) are provided; summaries fill in the blanks. We wonder if space considerations dictated a roughly 2700-line ceiling to excerpts; how an account of Roman mythology that highlights the historicization and politicization of myth can omit book 8, especially Evander's "tour of Rome" and the description of Aeneas' shield, is otherwise inexplicable. Chapter 21 concludes H.& P.'s treatment of Roman mythology with a brief account of Ovid, and themes and characters of the Metamorphoses, followed by almost 1000 lines excerpted from books 1, 4, and 15 of Humphries's translation.

While the separation of the preclassical and classical world into two parts presented certain drawbacks, here, H.& P.'s choice to present their material chronologically clearly has great value. In showing how Romans invented themselves through their transformation of Greek myth, H.& P. illustrate how vital myths and myth-making can be for any people. Their final part on the "Western World's Transformations of Myth" also makes this point effectively (as does M.& L.), with its discussion and sampling of later poems (excerpts from Dante, Milton; complete works by Sidney, Lyly, Donne, Byron, Tennyson, Yeats, and Auden) and art (e.g. Botticelli, Titian, Lorrain, Dali, Picasso) on mythological subjects. A "Select List of Primary Works that Reinterpret Classical Myths" directs the reader to additional works of fiction, poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, music, and film.

H.& P. have produced an excellent textbook for teaching classical mythology. Its chief virtues are its inclusion of large quantities of ancient sources in a single volume, its balanced presentation of background information about Greek culture and literature, its succinct but illuminating discussion of the hows and whys of Roman mythology, and its stimulating, though not polemical, interpretive viewpoints. Our issues with it are registered above. H.& P. rivals the standard that M.& L. has established; it deserves serious consideration by all teachers of