BMCR 2002.02.18

A Short Introduction to Classical Myth

, A short introduction to classical myth. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002. x, 229 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0130258393.

Students of Classical mythology must surely see a parallel between themselves and a certain Theban hero, locked in combat with the many-headed hydra. To ensure a proper understanding of mythology, they must first understand the cultural background which has spawned the tales in question. In other words, they must have a holistic understanding of ancient Greece. Geography, politics, religion, history… So many heads to decapitate. And it does not end there. Even when they understand Greece, they must then attempt to analyse the myths themselves, and study the various interpretations which two millennia worth of scholarship has produced. Where to begin?

Well, problem solved. Contained in Powell’s book is what could justifiably be termed ‘a beginner’s guide to ancient Greece’. The book takes a comprehensive look into Greek culture, giving a student new to the Classical world the best page-for-page introduction possible. While there is of course unlimited room for expansion in each field he touches upon, and he does occasionally make dubious statements (e.g. that Greek vases were based on silver and gold vessels, and that the pankration was a mixture of wrestling and boxing), Powell certainly arms a student of mythology with the basic background information the subject requires.

Summary is an often neglected scholarly device, yet one of the most useful for the student. The geography of Greece, social conditions, important events in Greek history, the developing use of the word muthos — all these are presented through well-written summaries and time-lines. The same technique is used with each of the myths discussed. Rather than assuming any prior knowledge, Powell gives the raw details of each — including all the labyrinthine tales surrounding the House of Atreus (a mythological web so convoluted that even a veteran classicist can make good use of Powell’s summary).

In addition to this fundamental background knowledge, the reader is also provided with an account of all major arguments regarding the analysis of mythology. Euhemerus’ theory that myth is always based on historical allegory (e.g. Zeus was a king who came to power by overthrowing his father via a palace intrigue); Theagenes’ theory that myth is based on physical allegory (e.g. Athene defeating Ares in Homer represents rational thought defeating berserk violence); Freud’s theory that myth exists because we all want to kill one parent and sleep with the other… These and many more are described and discussed in sufficient depth for a student to appreciate them. After reading this book, even novices will be able to bluff their way through any classroom discussion on the interpretation of mythology. Equally important is the way the author evaluates these theories, when he points out that they often help us understand the nature of scholarship at the time rather than enhancing our understanding of mythology. This point is often overlooked by those eager to accept or reject these theories at face value.

Powell goes on to categorise the mass of stories we refer to as myths. He divides them into divine myths (which focus on supernatural beings such as gods), folktales (tales of ordinary men and women) and legends (tales of heroes and heroines). While these divisions are very subjective, carving mythology up in such a way allows him to isolate and analyse themes more easily. There are chapters on the link between divine myth and religion, the link between legend and history (using the Trojan War as the major reference point), the role of women in myth (for example the Amazons) compared with their role in society, the role of myth in politics (e.g. the use of Theseus by the Athenians; the use of Aeneas by the Romans). The information here will undoubtedly be familiar to classicists, but will unquestionably be of great value to a student of mythology who is new to the Greco-Roman world, making this book an ideal starting point.

The area where this book may open the eyes of even a seasoned Classics student is in its use of Babylonian and Mesopotamian mythology. Most undergraduates will study Homer’s Odyssey at one time or another. What they probably will not hear, however, is how remarkably similar the opening of the poem is to the opening lines of the Gilgamesh epic. Powell provides his readers with extracts and summaries that cover the entire Gilgamesh epic, hence allowing them to appreciate the intertextuality between the work and various Greek myths. Powell brings attention to the fact that the Heracles legend is in many ways similar to that of Gilgamesh, and that Hesiod’s Theogony is likewise very similar to the Babylonian Enuma elish (extracts of which are also provided). Such cross-cultural references help the reader appreciate that the classical world did not exist in isolation. To truly appreciate an aspect of the Greco-Roman world, it is often necessary to examine that aspect in other ancient cultures as well. A lot of works overlook this, which is a mistake.

For a student of mythology who’s new to the Classical world, this book is the place to start. This would also be an ideal book for an experienced student of Classical mythology who is about to begin reviewing for an exam, since it could be treated as 200 pages of memory pegs. A veteran classicist looking to develop a greater understanding of mythology will likewise find useful material here, though much of the book (e.g. the introduction to Greek history and society; the summaries of well-known literary works) will of course be superfluous.