Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.10

Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, Pp. xvi, 536; 25 fig.  ISBN 978-0-521-60726-1.  $29.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Angela Kühr, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main (
Word count: 2173 words

What is Greek myth, or mythology? In which media did and does Greek myth manifest itself? What is its impact on Greek and Western culture across the ages? These central questions underlie the companion program. No single book could ever achieve extensive answers to all the aspects implied. If a companion like this one presents an up-to-date collection of central sources for, approaches to, and debates on these complex themes, it achieves a lot.

The volume contains 16 contributions of experts, who have mostly worked years or even decades on their topics and really know what they write about. It is divided in three main sections. The first part, "Sources and Interpretations" (pp. 15-254), highlights the most important authors and/or genres of Ancient Greek mythology from the eighth century BC to Hellenistic times. The second one, "Response, Integration, Representation" (pp. 255-381), investigates the cultural spheres of Greek society permeated by myths (religion, art, landscape, and politics), and closes with Ovidian, which is to say Roman, adaptations of Greek myth. The last part, "Reception" (pp. 383-479), concentrates on the appropriation of Greek myth from the Middle Ages to modernity by taking into account feminist scholarship, literature, and cinema. Apart from the bibliography and the general index, sections on "Further Reading" following every contribution help the reader to get through the jungle of literature on Greek myth and mythology. Reproductions of vase paintings, sculptures, and film scenes in the middle of the book complete the impression of a thoughtfully composed ensemble.

Every main part is opened by two long quotations of a modern and an ancient version of a Greek myth, Hawthorne's mid-nineteenth-century retellings and Hesiod's or Apollodorus' accounts respectively. By contrasting ancient and modern versions with contemporary essays, the editor intends to "demonstrate the malleability of the Greek traditions," and to "remind ourselves of both the enchanting romantic familiarity of these materials, and of their utter foreignness in a world from which their formative frame vanished long ago" (p. 11). On the one hand, these juxtapositions demonstrate the holistic approach of this book, which envisages Greek myth from the beginnings up to contemporary times. On the other hand, the very fact of juxtaposing the texts contradicts any presumption that the holistic approach could be misunderstood as aiming to cover mythology in a universal sense. Correspondingly, the title of Woodard's introduction can be read as the companion's motto: "Muthoi in Continuity and Variation" (pp. 1-13). That myths are to be characterized by their fluidity, namely the variety of simultaneous and subsequent versions, is a conviction not only stressed in the introduction (p. 1), but omnipresent throughout the volume. Not 'variation,' but 'continuity' is the difficult term. As 'continuity' and 'variation' are strictly bound together, possible connotations alluding to a linear evolvement of Greek myth and myth reception, or the implication that the section "Reception" intends to describe the entire development of Greek myth reception from the Middle Ages up to recent readaptations are less problematic than the category 'reception' itself. Of course, anyone who treats reception phenomena runs the risk of opening the box of Pandora; only a fool would reproach the editor that the companion does not mention every aspect of myth reception taking place in a period of more than 1500 years. But what does 'reception' mean? In this book, the section with this title refers to adaptations and re-vitalisations of Greek myth taking place after the epoch we call 'Antiquity.' In contrast, 'reception' is inherent to myth itself. Woodard's essay on Hesiod demonstrates that the first written testimonies of Greek myth already are products of reception phenomena themselves. Reception processes begin when a myth is retold for the very first time. In the context of an oral culture, reception occurred a long time before the first literal manifestations of Greek myths took shape.

Gregory Nagy opens Part I with "Lyric and Greek Myth" (pp. 19-51), and "Homer and Greek Myth" (pp. 52-82). He stresses the close interconnection between lyric or epic compositions and performance acts in Archaic Greece. In his first contribution, he looks at transmitted texts of Sappho and Alcaeus to get closer to the myths and rituals of the Lesbian people as expressed in lyric performance. By analysing linguistic details of Sappho fragments, e.g. the use of the lyric "I," he demonstrates how a fusion of identities took place between Aphrodite and the choral leader, which is to be understood as an epiphany of the goddess, and thus proofs the unity of lyric composition and ritual performance during the festival of the Kallisteia of Lesbos. Likewise, myths in Homer are equally bound to oral culture; 'muthoi' are speech-acts themselves. They express the truth within the context of performance of local rituals. As soon as myths are delocalized and integrated in abstract master-myths like the epic Odyssey, they get controlled by the master narrator and thus become relative; hence the discussion on wrong and true myths, pseudea in opposition to aletheia, begins.

While Nagy already mentions the Near Eastern influence on Greek myth, it is Roger D. Woodard, in "Hesiod and Greek Myth" (pp. 83-165), who concentrates on the "East Face of Helicon."1 The author's knowledge of Near Eastern languages and contexts is impressive: by depicting parallels between Hesiodic and many Oriental and Indo-European myths, he demonstrates with an almost missionary impetus what classicists often if not neglect, at least only superficially take into account--due to their lack of language capacities apart from Greek and Latin. Though he is right that myths have to be told to make the stories known, he follows his passion too extensively. Many pages of his immensely long essay consist of abundant summaries intended to prove how close to each other Greek and Near Eastern or Indo-European traditions are. What is more, he also cites long passages of leading scholars, especially West and Nagy, conceding to them a source-like status. Certainly, Hesiod is very important for the establishment of the Greek mythical cosmos, and very few could trace him back to the Oriental routes as Woodard can. But if the size of his elaborations had been reduced, his points would have been even better made.

With "Tragedy and Greek Myth" (pp. 166-189), Richard Buxton contributes a well-structured overview by presenting well-proportioned quotations and concise summaries, and by concentrating on his central question: which features of myth-telling were distinctively tragic? It is the specific way of exploring "the place of humanity in the world..., their continuing power to hold, enchant, shock, and unsettle." (p. 186)

In spite of the title "Myth in Aristophanes" (pp. 190-209), Angus Bowie investigates the relation between myth and Greek comedy as a whole by beginning with a general overview of Old Comedy. Of course, Aristophanes is the most famous representative of Ancient Greek comedies. But even in his case the paucity of evidence is striking. What the remaining fragments allow to say is that comedies used to reverse common messages of myths as provided by tragedy in order to produce an "awareness of the dangers of too uncritical or simplistic an acceptance of what some myths may convey." (p. 208)

In the original meaning of the word, 'mythology' is tautological, for in Homeric times, muthoi and logoi meant more or less the same. Diskin Clay, in "Plato Philomythos" (pp. 210-236), deconstructs the often supposed dichotomy between the two terms in later times. In reality, the relation was much more complex than a simple opposition between true and false (or, rather, fictive) tales. In Plato, it depends on the perspective of the story-teller if his tale should be considered as mythos or logos. Plato uses and dismisses myths at the same time. Last but not least, he is one of the most ingenious mythmakers himself--surely just to transmit the truth via mythic accounts.

Certainly, myths appeared in prose texts before Hellenistic times, but the passion for collecting and compiling different myth traditions only arose then, as Carolyn Higbie stresses in "Hellenistic Mythographers" (237-254). For us, these compilations, e.g., the famous ones of Apollodorus, are sources undeniably valuable for elder traditions otherwise lost and for specifically Hellenistic aspirations of facing the mythological heritage.

Due to its strong interconnections with Part I, the article of Claude Calame on "Greek Myth and Greek Religion" (259-285) is the perfect opening for Part II, which explores Greek mythology less from author- or genre-centred than from structural perspectives. Calame stresses the importance of the different genres as necessary condition for making myths socially and ideologically active, e.g. in the context of cult institutions. With respect to religion, Calame illustrates the companion's motto of mythic variety: "the ensemble of the myths of the Hellenic tradition is characterized by a certain plasticity that allows the poetic creation of versions constantly readapted for cult and for religious and ideological paradigms offered by a polytheism that varies within the multifarious civic space and time of the cities of Greece." (p. 282)

While Jenifer Neils, in "Myth and Greek Art: Creating a Visual Language" (pp. 286-304), investigates the Greek ways of visual in opposition to literal narrations of myths, Ada Cohen, in "Mythic Landscapes of Greece" (pp. 305-330), underlines the topographical and nature-related sensibility of Greek culture. Countryside and gender, caves, the underworld, mountains, trees, bodies of water or perceptions of landscape in body metaphors, our sources testify to rich and viable conceptions of landscape, where "vision and imagination, real life and mythology worked in synergy" (p. 327).

To illustrate the use of myths for political aims, the efficacy of which relied on the general familiarity with, and therefore acceptance of, mythical tales, Jonathan M. Hall, in "Politics and Greek Myth" (pp. 331-354), presents three case studies. In his comments on Theseus, he argues for his establishment as a Panathenian hero, not under Cleisthenic democracy, but under the Peisistratids. The Cleisthenic democracy usurped a pre-existing figure and endowed him with new significance so that he was remembered as the founder of Athenian democracy. Here, the companion is not only up to date, but even exposes a fresh thesis which deserves to be discussed elsewhere in a more detailed way.

A. J. Boyle, in "Ovid and Greek Myth" (pp. 355-381), stresses the otherness of Greek myth within Roman, especially Imperial culture; myths were no longer part of rituals but discursive elements of intellectual life, and regarded as fabulae, fiction. Ovid used Greek myth, for example, as a paradigm for humanitas and for comments on Augustan politics.

As opening of Part III, Vanda Zajko, in "Women and Greek Myth" (387-406), contributes a methodologically conscious article which is valuable for reflections on myth as a source for social circumstances in general and on feminist approaches to Greek myth in particular. H. David Brumble, in "Let Us Make Gods in Our Image: Greek Myth in Medieval and Renaissance Literature" (pp. 407-424), introduces the reader into the multi-layered allegorical interpretations of Greek myths. In "'Hail, Muse! et cetera': Greek Myth in English and American Literature" (pp. 425-452), Sarah Annes Brown differentiates "Catholic" from "Protestant" poetic approaches to Greek myth; while the first rely on a long tradition of myth interpreters, the latter try to get to the original meaning. Finally, Martin M. Winkler, in "Greek Myth on the Screen" (pp. 453-479), deals with popular culture as the essential factor for the survival of Greek myth in the 20th century.

In fact, the companion presents an impressive kaleidoscope on the topic of "Muthoi in Continuity and Variation." In a single book, the central questions of 3000 years of myth tradition are discussed or at least touched. It enables the reader to get a thoughtful overview of a very complex field, and that is exactly what a companion should do. Concerning the problematic category 'continuity,' Woodard himself poses the important question: "At what point does the 'rewriting' of a myth create something that is fundamentally different from that myth? Is the result of the 'rewriting' still 'myth'--still muthos?" (p. 9) Zajko, in her opening of the "Reception" part, opts for "yes" (cf. p. 389). Who would doubt that modern re-interpretations of Greek myth differ essentially from ancient conceptions? The contexts have changed fundamentally, sure. But in both cases, we look at reception processes: Taking the companion's motto, "Muthoi in Continuity and Variation," seriously, myth is a constant process of reception and re-interpretation which begins when a myth is retold for the very first time. Looking closely at the subdivision of the volume, you could bemoan the inconsistency that a genre or a representative author is mentioned in the titles of the volume's first part while the contributions themselves normally do not focus on the genre or the author exclusively. The subcategories sometimes seem artificial; Neil's article on visual art could be subsumed under "Sources and Interpretations" (Part I) as well as Boyle's essay on Ovid. If you exclude the titles of the main parts, which subdivide the essays into partly inconsistent groups and reveal a problematic understanding of 'reception,' everyone interested in Greek myth will estimate this companion as a useful and inspiring departing point for getting deeper into the subject.


1.   Cf. the title of Martin L. West's book The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, Oxford 1997.

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