BMCR 1995.05.03

1995.05.03, Powell, Classical Myth

, Classical Myth. With new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995. Pp. xxvi + 707.

When one considers the continuing popularity of Mythology courses in schools and universities, together with new approaches and insights brought forward by scholars in recent years, 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 (M.&L.). Now more texts are on the horizon. 1 One of these, Barry Powell’s ambitious effort, Classical Myth (P.), challenges M.&L. on its own terms, outstripping it both in completeness and interpretive sophistication. It will be interesting to see whether P. convinces many instructors of myth to switch from M.&L. I suspect that it will not.

The first thing that strikes one upon opening P. is its size. Bigger is better seems to be the working assumption. A little taller and a full inch wider than the already substantial M.&L., it is a hefty and imposing volume. Although about equal to M.&L. in number of pages (P. 733, M.&L. 725), P.’s larger format 2 and fewer pages devoted to the survival of classical myth (dealt with in P. by 40 individual “Perspectives”) ensure that students are given more texts in translation, more tales paraphrased, and more interpretation. Indeed, P. ranges far wider than M.&L., encompassing not only Roman myth but also tales of the Near East—Hittite, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hebrew and Egyptian. Mesopotamian myth is given pride of place in Chapter 2 as “the earliest myths” and “valuable for our understanding of classical myth” (p. 17). The placement is also in accord with the author’s guiding principle: to go beyond traditional applications of myth in books such as M.&L., in order to emphasize the “anthropological, historical, religious, sociological, and economic contexts in which the stories of the ancients were told” (p. xxiii).

The volume is organized along the same general lines as M.&L., though not always in the same order. The first chapter is devoted to an introduction to the subject and a definition of myth. Theories of interpretation, included in M.&L.’s first chapter, merit a separate and longer section in P. After the chapter on the Mesopotamian material, the volume moves on to examine the cultural background of Greek myth. The main body of the work considers first the divine (“Divine Myths”), then the human (“Greek Legends”) side of the tales, with chapters on “Myths of Death” and “Myths of Inspired Knowledge” (prophecy and healing) as transition between the two. The general movement is from background to creation to the gods to the intersections of gods and humans (death, prophecy) to the human world, a tried and true format.

The important chapters on definition, background, and interpretation are the most useful parts of the text. In these sections, the prose is straightforward and unadorned, with considerable pains taken to explain unfamiliar terms. As in M.&L., we read in P.’s Chapter 1 that there are three kinds of myth: divine myth, legend, and folktale; the author’s strength is in his patience to explain these terms fully, which M.&L. treats in a couple of paragraphs. Yet he also shows a fine sense of restraint, moving through the chapter in an economical 12 pages. P.’s history of interpretation, similarly, feels fresher than M.&L.’s, not least because it is presented as history rather than as a laundry list of approaches. Its weakness is its placement at the end of the book; more on this below. The chapter on culture is mixed in character. There is ample treatment of the contexts of Greek myth—geographical, historical, social, and religious—and this is welcome; however, there is no mention of such ideas as the shame culture, the importance of hybris, or the traditional separation of gods from humans, a concept existing side by side with the belief noted in P. that “the supernatural world easily mixes with the humans” (p. 78).

Delving into the main body of the text, one is immediately impressed by the abundance of detail. The author has set a difficult task for himself, not only to retell the stories, but to put them in context (within Greece and comparatively across cultures), and having done so, to interpret them. Loaded with so much information, the text could easily become unreadable. It does not. The stories are retold engagingly, with frequent photographs, maps, charts and illustrations which ease the reader’s eye; there are also frequent headings and sub-headings, giving the impression that one is marching briskly on to the end. No single chapter is overlong by itself. If one is to digest all this copious detail, a text with a format such as this one is imperative.

Much of the material in the main chapters, and that which M.&L. lacks by comparison, is interpretive. Where M.&L. is content to offer a sentence or a paragraph, and a conventional one at that, P. often takes a page or more. Dionysus, for example, rates three and one-half pages of interpretation in P., while M.&L. settles for three paragraphs. P. is truer to the march of classical scholarship here: Dionysus is among the most studied and still the least understood of the Olympian gods. Indeed, there are piles and piles of studies on this one topic that could be brought forward for the student’s edification. But it may not be the textbook’s place to make this choice for the instructor.

P. is admirable in its presentation, completeness, and in its willingness to move beyond traditional views on Greek myth. Considered from a pedagogical point of view, however, P. seems less successful. The amount of material will be daunting to many instructors of myth, not to mention students, who clamor for fewer names and events to memorize, not more. The first question asked in many a mythology class is how much of the text will be on the exam. I applaud anyone whose students will tolerate and memorize all or most of the material P. includes, or who has the fortitude to assign them this task. I am less stout-hearted, and less enamored of detail for its own sake.

A secondary but important consideration concerns interpretation. P. provides wheelbarrows full, drawing from every approach and method. In addition to explaining myths as entertainment, as aetiology, or as imparting a moral lesson, P. uses psychology, structuralism, ritual and historical approaches, and especially folktale motifs to illuminate the stories. Sometimes P. offers an overarching interpretation, excluding discussion of other viewpoints (e.g. Odysseus’ journey, Jason and Medea). Sometimes it clumps together several differing interpretations (e.g. Demeter/Persephone, Dionysus). This piecemeal arrangement is unsettling, the more so because discussion of interpretive methods is postponed to Part IV, the last major section of the book. For the student it is difficult to connect the process of interpretation with the individual story, since there is little explanation of how interpretive conclusions are reached. This renders the process a kind of oracular activity, unnecessarily so. It would have served the author well to insert at the beginning a statement such as he makes at the very end of his text, a statement which would prepare the unwitting student for the unwieldy mass of interpretations offered: “Greek myth taken together is too complex, too many-faceted, to be explained by a single theory. Its complexity is bound up with the complexity of human consciousness itself… To understand it, we must make use of insights offered by different schools of interpretation” (p. 685).

There is a difficulty here for the instructor as well. One of the instructor’s lone privileges in class is disseminating his own point of view on the stories, and, I hope, helping the students towards developing theirs. One of M.&L.’s strongest attractions is its single-faceted explanations, which can be used effectively as starting points (or as straw men) for the instructor’s own argument. The numerous and varied approaches of P. may leave the instructor with the sense, either that he has nothing left to say, or that he must take valuable class time justifying his approach over against those of P., or again that he must jettison large chunks of material as unimportant for the exam. M.&L. is a better choice here, because it presents the stories with a minimum of distraction.

P. makes no egregious factual errors, but there are inconsistencies and lapses in judgment. I was disappointed to read, for example, that P. first passes on the old chestnut about the rape of Persephone as an aetiology of the seasons (p. 6), only to discard that interpretation in favor of an aetiology “for the presence of death in the world. (pp. 236-7).” P. also follows M.&L.’s inexplicable contention that Gaea came from Chaos, when it is clear from Hesiod’s text that she came after him (“First of all came Chaos, and then broad-breasted Gaea”, Theogony 116-7). 3 The difficulty is compounded when we read in the same paragraph, “Tartarus is often confused in Greek myth with the abode of Hades, but Hesiod seems to mean by it the outermost edge of creation, the primordial yawning, the vertiginous abyss from which Gaea sprang” (p. 96). This sentence cannot intend to make Tartarus and Chaos an identity, but it comes close to doing so, and it will likely confuse the undergraduate reader, who has before him a genealogy on the facing page which shows Tartarus and Chaos as separate beings.

Interpretive curiosities are much more numerous, not surprising in a book of this size and scope. P. also has a tendency towards soaring generalizations (“Achilles is the intellectual, questioning the very foundations of his traditional culture when he rejects Agamemnon’s offer of the rich gifts… His successors in Greek culture will create philosophy, a rejection of traditional (and ‘mythical’) explanations in exchange for a reasoned investigation…” [p. 567]), which can only raise the specialist’s hackles. I found myself in hot disagreement with the unitary interpretations of the Odysseus story (pp. 620-1) and of the Jason and Medea cycle (pp. 528-9), and the strange passage on Oedipus’ free will or lack thereof (pp. 487-8) left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Working through this volume sometimes resembles swimming with jellyfish. Sooner or later one is bound to come upon something that stings.

Of course, the proof of any textbook is in the teaching. What look like weaknesses may yet end up as strengths, especially in the hands of the right instructor. But I suspect that M.&L. will not lose many adherents. It is a difficult thing to write an effective myth textbook, or at least one that will satisfy a substantial percentage of instructors. We are an idiosyncratic bunch, with our own ideas and particular points of view. Any book that goes beyond a retelling of the stories can only produce disagreement; P. proves this point abundantly. M.&L., conventional as it is, is a safer bet than P.

Barry Powell brings to this monumental effort an imaginative, active mind, a huge appetite for learning, twenty years of experience in teaching myth, and an admirable conviction that everything in his chosen subject is worthwhile for the undergraduate to experience. These strengths do not always translate well into his textbook. There is a polite expression that I have heard in the south for use when asked one’s opinion on an item possibly dear to the heart of a friend or colleague: “I wouldn’t choose it for myself.” In this case, it sums up my response perfectly.

  • [1] See the review by Lowell Edmunds of Fritz Graf’s An Introduction to Greek Mythology, BMCR 94.9.10. [2] A full page of text in P. has about 550 words; M.&L. about 425, though P. has fewer full pages than M.&L. P.’s font also appears smaller, but it is not. Perhaps it seems that way because M.&L.’s text is darker and easier to read. [3] M.&L. at least alerts the reader that this interpretation is a guess (“This is how we interpret Hesiod; not everyone will agree” [p. 43].); P. does not.