BMCR 1994.04.14

Early Greek myth : a guide to literary and artistic sources

, Early Greek myth : a guide to literary and artistic sources. London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. xxi, 909 pages. ISBN 9780801844102 $60.00.

This new handbook of Greek myth has as its goal “to refer Greek myths, where we can, back to the specific writers, taletellers, and artists who gave them to us, and to reconsider what part of our world of Greek myth each of those sources knew” (xx). It begins with the pre-Olympian gods in Chapter 1, and proceeds in subsequent chapters to cover the Olympians (2), Olympos and the Underworld (3), Prometheus (4), the line of Deukalion (5), the other early families of Inachos, Atlas and Asopos (6), the royal house of Athens (7), Minos and Crete (8), the later exploits of Theseus (9), Perseus and Bellerophon (10), the daughters of Thestios (11), Jason and the Argonauts (12), Herakles (13), tales of Thebes (14), the line of Tantalos (15), the Trojan War (16), the returns (17), and finally, miscellaneous figures such as Ixion and Orpheus (18). Thus, in format, it roughly follows that of the mythographer who wrote the Library once attributed to Apollodoros, and, like that work of the 2nd cent. A.D., it is a monumental compendium of Greek mythology.

However, Gantz seeks to improve upon Apollodoros in two ways. First he would, in theory, limit his sources to the Archaic period, “defined as from Homer down through roughly to Aischylos and Bakchylides.” I say “in theory” because Gantz finds it (of course) impossible to reconstruct all of early Greek mythology relying solely on Homer, Hesiod, fragments of lyric poetry, and one Attic tragedian. Hence Gantz just as often quotes sources like Apollodoros and the Roman mythographer Hyginus, albeit in an attempt to reconstruct what would have been known to an Archaic audience. As anyone who has worked with early sources knows, this is a slippery business, but Gantz presents each case thoroughly, citing all the significant variants, and argues persuasively for what must have been later accretions and downright inventions, usually on the part of authors like Euripides. Thus, one is left with a fairly clear picture of what version(s) of any given myth was known in the Archaic period.

Gantz’s second goal is more problematical and somewhat less successful. He would admit as evidence for details of narrative the earliest pictorial representations of various myths, again in theory limited to the Archaic period, i.e. before 480 B.C. (but in effect ranging in date down to the 4th century B.C. with South Italian vases). Just as with the literary sources, the vast majority of the earliest artistic evidence is no longer extant, and what remains shows considerable regional variation, not to mention obscure iconography which often leads to divergent interpretations. But whatever difficulties the material might raise, it would be methodologically indefensible to ignore this important body of evidence, which is datable and often earlier than any of the extant texts. It is very much to the author’s credit that he undertakes this Herculean, nay Olympian task, but there are some shortcomings. When one reads that there are three women labeled “Moirai” on the Francois vase (p. 8), one is given pause since there are clearly four. In his discussion of Hesiod’s version of the birth of Aphrodite (p. 11), no mention is made of the early 6th century Akropolis plaque (Athens 2526) which shows Himeros and Eros in her arms, even though Hesiod (Th. 201) specifically mentions these two as her companions from birth. In speculating on the basis of an allusion in Pindar that Herakles may have once come to blows with Hades (p. 70), Gantz does not adduce as evidence the Middle Corinthian kotyle from Argos which shows Herakles, weapons in hand, actually chasing Hades from his throne (even though this vase was cited earlier [p. 22] in reference to Kerberos).

In the realm of iconography it is impossible to compete with the magisterial and fully illustrated Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, and to his credit Gantz doesn’t even try, but simply cites the Lexicon reference in a catalogue of artistic representations in an appendix[1] This appendix which lists objects by museum or collection is unfortunately sometimes also problematical. The objects are separated into media categories so that one has to know from a reference in the text whether Berlin 1786 is a vase, painted or relief, a “painted clay artifact”, a small relief, an architectural or a free-standing sculpture. The collection citations are not consistent; in most instances city precedes museum name, so why Getty Museum (Malibu) or Kimball Museum (Ft. Worth)? Probably most inconvenient for non-art historians is the absence of any indication of date. Likewise in another appendix which lists the ancient texts cited, it would have been useful for the non-philologist to have some clue about the floruits of the individual authors. General English readers may be put off or confused by transliterations such as Bellerophontes, Harpuiai, Krete, Kirke, Iason.

However, many of these criticisms are minor points in relation to the overall contribution to classical studies of such a volume. Not since Preller and Robert (Griechische Mythologie 1894-1926) has anyone attempted to combine both literary citations and works of art in a comprehensive handbook of Greek mythology. For a single author to have accomplished this in a single volume is nothing short of remarkable. This book will certainly become a staple of all classical libraries for years to come.

[1] A new and useful source for mythological representations of the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. is Gudrun Ahlberg-Cornell’s Myth and Epos in Early Greek Art. Representation and Interpretation, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology vol. C (Jonsered, 1992).